Sunday, 12 April 2015

Review: Jaws

Figure 1: Theatrical Poster (Amazon)
  • Primary Language: English
  • Format: Colour
  • Year of Release: 1975
  • Budget: est. $8,000,000
  • Film Length: 124 minutes
  • Production Company: Zanuck/Brown Productions, Universal Pictures
    One of Steven Spielberg’s most famous films, Jaws, like Metropolis in 1929 was a film known for codifying the summer blockbuster film.  Based on a novel of the same name and set on the fictional summer island of Amity, the story revolves around the sudden and rather disastrous appearance of a great white shark that threatens the island’s coastline in the weeks before the 4th of July, which for the summer resort is one of their busiest times of the year.  It is up to police Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) to protect the beach and the town and ultimately get rid of the creature menacing its coastline.

Despite the larger-than-normal great white that serves as the star, this film does not strike fear by exaggeration or Hollywood embelishment. The dread – brought by the shark’s menacing presence and the science we are given by oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) – remains largely grounded in reality. Hooper’s role largely “introduces the technical material about sharks in a way that reinforces our elemental fear of them.” (Ebert, 1975) the stuff we are given is not made up for the purpose of striking fear and the intimidation. To prominent examples include Hooper realising that the bide marks left on the body of the first victim that suggested the mouth of their problem was far larger than the mouth of a tiger shark could by the townspeople, and further on a tactic used to slow down and drown a shark such as a great white (air-filled barrels lashed to a harpoon) simply give it a physical presence and demonstrate how freakishly strong this beast is. The icing on the cake would be Hooper’s summary of the shark’s nature: “All this machine does is swim and eat and make little sharks, and that's all.” His summary makes this thing all the more terrifying as he essentially tells us that all this thing exists to do is eat and make babies, the idea that there could be more monsters like Jaws – no matter how mundane he is – lurking out in the ocean would definitely make some moviegoers think twice about swimming.

Figure 2: Add a secret shark and these barrels become terrifying signs of a horror approaching. (GoneMovies)
Created in the age before computer graphics became all the rage, the titular shark has a charm about it. Due to mechanical troubles, Spielberg took the route of “less is more” to show the shark and inspire dread as he “expertly conceals the monster, bringing him into frame sparingly to create impact jolts.” (Reynolds, 2012) That I still remember long after watching the film. In fact the mechanical shark barely has any screen-time, which it shares with a (likely smaller) shark that is used in primarily passing shots, and even that the face of the creature is used sparingly. The result is we’re not completely thrown off by whether or not the shark is fake or not because most of the time either we don’t see it or we see a real shark cleverly shot to look like Jaws himself. 

Like every monster movie one of the crucial things are the performances of the human characters, and much of the discussion in the film is whether to prioritise the safety of the island and the tourists, or the island’s economy and open the shark-haunted beaches. Defying the tropes of the disaster branch of the genre it created , the three key characters are not heads of their field or randomly possessing some key quality, instead you've got these three ordinary guys - a drunk, a nerd and essentially this middle-aged dad who is afraid of the water - who rise up to the challenge. The fact they're so ordinary just makes what they do all the more remarkable.” (Lucy, 2014) And unlike films such as 2012, Deep Impact, Thor, The Day After Tomorrow or even the 2014 Godzilla film, we have a leading protagonist (Martin in this case) who  has no skill or job that puts him at a convenient advantage (he’s a police chief yes, but most of his job takes place on land) over everyone else. Quite the opposite as the film spends part of its time showing him cluing himself up as to what he’s facing despite Amity bringing in a professional oceanographer, and what is even more engrossing and genre-shifting is that his research was clearly not helping him much. We are told he is afraid of the water and coming across a picture of a shark trying to eat a boat in a storm can’t be good for his self-confidence.
Figure 3: What sets Martin Brody apart from the "struggling dad" archetype in many disaster films is that he has no convenient speciality, which makes the determination of his involvement that much more heroic. (brathwaite, 2012)

    It was something of a wise decision to tie Quint (Robert Shaw) with  the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis during World War II, a real event with real consequences. The decision certainly enhances things as “the effect — it enriches Quint's character and the whole shark hunt in a heartbeat — is undeniable” (Empire) It quickly explains Quint’s hatred and obsession with sharks and uses emotion to justify his mentality, going as far as to affirm that sharks look almost undead as they attack. He could have had a more general story, a fishing captain who lost men in a shark attack, but instead Spielberg’s team tied it with an American tragedy that saw many men lose their lives to sharks and fatigue. The result is a convincing character with a borderline-irrational obsession with sharks that, as it turns out, came from enduring several days of hell. It’s hard to imagine someone who went through what he did and not be affected somehow.

Figure 4: By including Quint into the survivors of the Indianapolis, and with World War II ending only 30 yearsbefore the film's release, the film drove home how relatable and nightmarish his siutation was. (Butler, 2007)
    Toning down the elaboration, Spielberg has created what could be described as a “domestic disaster” film. The world’s not ending, not everyone is going to die, but the fact these people are having their lives changed perhaps irrevocably not only grounds the film’s believability, but also makes it viewable and capable of affecting a wide audience – with sharks being common on many coastlines and a danger to all beach communities, yes, you would likely not go into the water after seeing this.

Imag References


  1. Hi Mark - great to see you plugging the gaps - and committing to another engaging, content-rich review; you appear however to have some formatting glitches here - a great big highlighted section? Take a look...

    1. Corrected. I initially tried using word to write up the review so I have no idea where the white highlighted section came from.