Director: Stephen Spielberg
Cast: Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Murray Hamilton, Lorraine Gary
Plot: A quiet coastal town is terrorised by a killer shark. The only option: send a team out to eliminate the terrifying threat.
Why is Jaws the ultimate shark movie? What does Stephen Spielberg’s horror classic have that the following movies, the countless shark films, including Jaws’ own sequels, lack? The cynics will say that it is simply that Jaws is first. The classic shark movie tropes (the foreboding fin being seen before the shark, the underwater POV shot), were invented here and the novelty is Spielberg’s biggest success here. Others will say that, despite massive difficulties with filming, the secret ingredient is the animatronic shark rather than the terrible CGI prominent in most other shark movies. It feels more real, more visceral… and because of the constant malfunctions, the shark is used sparingly, which ended up making the film scarier by consequence. But the truth is that the quality stems from something more deeper than a gimmick or singular success.
Jaws is a film of two halves. The first half might seem like the duller one, but truthfully, it is these scenes which give this movie staying power over the likes of the shark movie competition. Largely without any sightings of the shark, this scene sees the first few victims go missing and Amity Beach’s reactions to the killings. Roy Schneider’s police chief, lacking in authority as the locals seem him as an outsider to the town, immediately decides to close the beach, until the shark moves on. However, the Mayor of the town, well aware that Amity Beach thrives off of the tourism trade, refuses to shut down the beach on the 4th July celebrations. While the shark racks up the body count, arguably the real antagonist here is human greed and ignorance. The mayor answers the shark problem by sending out drunken and inexperienced hunters to chase down the shark for a reward. Meanwhile the beaches continue to thrive, giving the shark an all-you-can-eat buffet. Most of the dialogue here is largely thrown away, because a lot of it is muttered or said over the top of two other lines of dialogue. It is hard to pick anything specific out. But that is the point, showing the craziness and difficulty of getting a point across when the public are out for their pound of flesh. Schneider’s character is always swimming against the tide, before he has even put his foot into the water. You share the frustration of the protagonist as he tries to do the right thing, but the very people he is trying to save are the ones who are in his way. That is the real point of Jaws; in the words of Men In Black: a person is smart, people are dumb. It is a simple thing, but in having something more to the story than ‘shark eats men’, it adds depth to the proceedings, something to track across the course of the film. There are also some great scenes buried in this slow-burning start. Spielberg breaks the mould with this early film, killing off a young boy early on. It is a gut-wrenching move, something few directors would have dared to do. But as well as delivering the shock value, it instantly makes the stakes feel more personal. This shark is an attack on your innocents, your family… While the issue with many shark films these days is that they try to vilify their sharks too much (believe it or not, they are not as single-mindedly evil as the shark in The Shallows), this disturbing addition gives this particular shark enough “bite” to stick around in the memory.
Of course, Jaws doesn’t truly become the film you remember until the second half. Like a rocket hurtling into space, Jaws discards the components that aren’t needed in the finale. The cast is whittled down to its best three (Schneider, Shaw and Dreyfuss), and they are put in a claustrophobic boat setting, pitted against the infamous shark. Each actor is phenomenal in their own right. Dreyfuss provides the easy-going charm, instantly likeable. Schneider anchors the film with the quotable lines (“We are gonna need a bigger boat!”) and the hero attitude. But it is Robert Shaw who triumphs. His maverick fisherman is crazy enough to be colourful, but serious enough to be taken seriously. He is the local weirdo, who suddenly becomes their final hope. Spielberg’s success here is that he doesn’t mind taking the film away from the shark for long moments at a time to develop these three characters. One of the best scenes in the film is the three of them comparing scars in the cabin, getting drunk and singing songs. That scene boasts a mesmerisingly iconic monologue from Shaw that is the stuff of cinematic legend. These three are fun to spend time with and when the shark comes for them, your heart ends up in your mouth. Spielberg might have had troubles with the animatronic shark, but he managed to get it working long enough for a tense ending. While it takes a long while to properly show up (although Spielberg’s inventive use of visual cues is another reason Jaws is such a strong cinematic achievement), when it does, it is a thrilling ride. The animatronic shark earns its merits in scenes where it tears into the boat and a shark cage. It feels terrifying, watching this physical force interacting with the set in a way that a computer-generated monster simply wouldn’t have been able to do. The CGI sharks might do more, but they are very rarely as effective or chilling as this original titan. By the end you are exhausted, but totally satisfied you have witnessed the ultimate shark movie.
Final Verdict: Jaws isn’t just the greatest shark movie, but up there with some of the finest cinema in history.