Rewatched May 11, 2012
Adam Cook’s review:
Whilst Jaws undoubtedly changed cinema forever, and signalled the birth of the blockbuster, there is a big ‘what if’ hanging over the film: what if Bruce, the affectionately named mechanical shark, had worked as originally intended? Would the film still have been the runaway smash and would it still stand as one of the true greats of American cinema? Of course it is a question that cannot be answered but whilst the technical gremlins were a big headache for Spielberg and his crew at the time he must now see its limitations as a blessing. It is partly because the shark could not be used as intended that the film was so effective and why it has aged so brilliantly to this day.
Keeping ‘Bruce’ off screen for most of the film meant they had to rely on one of the horror genre’s most powerful yet often overlooked tools: the audience’s imagination. Having a more prominent shark would have undoubtedly stripped the film of its palpable tension and fear of the unexpected. Relying purely on the rubber fin and John William’s now iconic stabbing score helped create one of cinema’s most famous villains and dramatically increased the number of thalassophobia sufferers overnight. Like the classic monsters that are scariest when in the shadows, the shark is at its most frightening when unseen and able to strike at any moment.
Yet whilst it was the shark that got the audiences into the cinema it was the human drama that kept them coming back. It is the human relationships that separates Jaws from nearly all other monster movies. Typically the monster (whether it be real or fictional) is the movie, yet whilst the shark is the catalyst for the story it never overshadows the human moments. Although not as overtly personal as Close Encounters of the Third Kind or E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, the film still shares a lot of the hallmarks and themes that would continually crop up in Spielberg’s work: The small community, a strong family dynamic and a male lead driven by a singular goal. Unlike most monster movies, these aren’t one-dimensional characters there as mere shark bait or to help bump up the run time whilst the monster isn’t on screen. No, these are believable and flawed people both that you can relate to and root for. So often in these films you want the characters to meet a swift and sticky end yet here not only do you want them to survive but you don’t even mind that the shark hasn’t made an appearance for half an hour.
Whilst a lot of the credit must go to the script and Spielberg’s direction Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss all deliver some of their best performances. Even though Jaws signalled the start of the summer blockbuster in cinema it still bridged the gap between the larger than life spectacle and the golden age of ‘70s cinema where character was King. Over time the blockbuster, and every film associated with it, has become a byword for shallow rollercoaster rides with cardboard cutout characters, yet Jaws is proof that when done right the blockbuster can be an unrivalled experience.
It may be debatable that Steven Spielberg is the greatest director of all time but it is harder to argue that he is the creator of more iconic moments in cinema history than any other filmmaker. He is a genius (and I rarely use that word) at delivering moments of magic that enter the public’s consciousness and transcend the medium of film. Jaws is littered with such scenes, images and sounds yet despite the familiarity with every major moment in the film it still manages to surprise and enthrall.
Jaws is more than just a monster movie and more than just another dumb blockbuster; it is a heartfelt, expertly crafted slice of escapism that manages to terrify and excite in equal measure and its impact has not been diluted by the passage of time.