17th Jun2013

Rewind: ‘Jaws’ Review

by Dan Clark

Stars: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary | Written by Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb | Directed by Steven Spielberg

Jaws

Today the summer blockbuster has become a staple in our society. The hype machine has grown larger and larger now with the anticipation for the next-big-thing building years prior to release. Millions have turned into billions as domestic hits have transformed into worldwide sensations. We forget the summer movie season was not nearly as predominant as it is now. People peg one movie as the conduit that started it all, and obviously that film is Steven Spielberg’s second feature Jaws. The success propelled Spielberg from up-and-comer to surefire superstar.  Not only was it the first film ever to reach the $100 million mark it was also nominated by the Academy Awards for Best Picture. Strangely enough Spielberg did not receive a nomination for his directing efforts. Still, throughout the years Jaws has maintained tremendous respect from audiences and critics alike. It is easy to see why as it is masterfully made in every aspect and defines what it means to build suspense.  Combing that craftsmanship with memorable characters and a fined tuned script makes Jaws one of the truly great films of our time.

Much of the brilliance of Jaws lies in its concise structure. The story follows Brody (Roy Scheider) as he begins his first summer as Chief of Police of Amity Island. When the torn apart remains of a young woman float ashore Brody shuts down the beach in hopes of preventing another shark attack.  Mayor Vaugh (Murray Hamilton) is apprehensive to make such a conclusion and orders the beach to be reopened. Amity Island is a summer city that relies on its beaches to bring in tourist. Closing the beaches would have a huge negative impact on the local economy. Adding this dilemma is part of what makes Jaws  superior to the average creature-feature. For one it demonstrates the true villain in this story is not the shark but human greed.  Mayor Vaugh motivations however aren’t as clear-cut evil as they might appear. Truth is the livelihood of many of his towns citizens could be ruined if the beaches are closed. So his motivations aren’t completely deplorable.  While this moral quandary is not something philosophers will pontificate on for generations, it at least adds a layer of complexity to the storyline.

In addition it gives a reason why people get back into the troubled water. Of course Brody was right and the shark attacks once again killing a young boy. Spielberg is typically known for making safe choices when deciding who to kill off in his movies. In this he knows no boundaries offing a dog and a child and one-fell-swoop. The death of the boy causes fishermen from all over to come to Amity and claim the reward the victim’s mother is offering. Amoung the group of newcomers is Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) a member of the Oceanographic Institute. Brody and Hooper team up with the local fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) who has a knack for hunting the beast of the sea. These three men attempt to do the impossible and kill this shark for the betterment of all the lives of Amity.

Jaws has many facets that place it above films of similar ilks. Near the top of that list is the quality characters it creates. When looking at this film decades after release it is hard not to equate Quint with the way Spielberg approached Abraham Lincoln last year.  Obviously both have very different personalities, yet each has the ability to captivate a crowd based on sheer presence. Their storytelling ability provides a small window into their inner workings. In addition it aids in the growth of their own legacy. While everyone is getting lost in debate they have long solved the issue and are waiting for everyone else to catch up.

Another similar characteristic is both are helmed by great actors. Robert Shaw’s performance goes a long way in making Quint on of the best characters in any Spielberg film. He is the type of person who chews nails and spits rusts. For a film with a multitude of well-constructed shark attacks it is quite impressive one of the standout moments is Quint simply telling the tale of the USS Indianapolis. Imagining that horror further exemplified the tension that was on screen.  Not to be outdone by Quint were Brody and Hopper. Each of these characters have unique quirks  that make them relatable.  Richard Dreyfuss is obviously there to bring an element of comedic relief, but he has  this selfish hidden agenda about him as well. At first he seems like the one person who sees the reality of what is in front of him, but his motivations are just as selfish as everyone else. Even something likes Brody’s distaste for the water adds a little wrinkle to this character. Brody works perfectly as the main protagonist as he is the every man who is trying to do what is right. Protecting his people and his family from this fierce creature is his only goal.

Clearly you can’t talk aboutJaws without focusing on the shark. The malfunctions of the shark have been well documented, and it goes without saying those glitches played a huge part in this film’s accomplishments. Spielberg was forced to be creative by immersing you into the film far before you see a glimpse of a dorsal fin. He makes the shark into this unyielding force of unconditional annihilation. There is no complexity to its motivations—just sheer naturalistic instincts to consume.  Major credit also needs to go to John Williams simply brilliant score. Spielberg said himself the film would not have been the success it was without Williams. It’s hard to argue otherwise.  It does what a good score should and exemplifies the emotions on screen without overtaking them. Slowly it crawls along at an inconspicuous pace only to engulf you in this fever pitch of chaos. Combining all these factors makes Jaws the perfect package of adventure.

Modern movie audiences can credit Jaws as the creator of the blockbusters. Some may argue that title is not one to hold with honor as many films today are far more focused on the bottom-line rather than creating something of value. Still,  Jaws  shows you can be both a crowd pleaser and critic triumph. It is a triumph of movie making that has inspired generation of filmmakers. Today Spielberg is one of the well-known directors worldwide. He took his first big step towards that direction when he took what could have been an absolute disaster and turned it into pure gold.

***** 5/5

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