Jaws (DVD, 2005, 2-Disc Set, Widescreen) Reviews
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Jaws (DVD, 2005, 2-Disc Set, Widescreen)

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The Original Summer Blockbuster (Jaws write-off)

Jul 14, 2000
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Suspenseful, More Character development than most blockbuster films, Musical score, Tight direction by Spielberg

Cons:Some unrealistic elements, some stereotypical towns people


To celebrate the 25th anniversary of the movie that began the summer blockbuster tradition, I humbly join a host of other great reviewers, including: ZentropaJK, Psychovant, Amyrok, Lighthouse, Energy81, That-Guy, Knix, TatooedJedi, FDKnight, Lambira, Wokelstein, Fiatgirl, Verbal, SqueebinatorX, Mangiotto, Memento-Mori, RFR, Megasoul, Mike_Bracken, Sleestakk, Donlee_Brussel, Grouch, Caconti, Shadow8, DrLolipop, MattJoe, and JAPrufrock. I suggest you check out their reviews as well.


Preparation for watching the ultimate Shark movie

At times it seems that Steven Spielberg and I grew up in parallel worlds since he makes movies about many of the things that fascinated me as a child. There were the Saturday matinee serials (Raiders of the Lost Ark), King Arthur (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), aliens (Close Encounters and E.T. ), dinosaurs (Jurassic Park), and sharks (Jaws).

I remember a period when I was 12 years old that I got on a huge shark binge and read everything about them that I could find in the public library. Especially interesting were the books that described shark attacks and showed pictures of mutilated body parts. Particularly scary and gruesome was the description of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the 1100 men who fought off man-eating sharks for a week before they were rescued; of course, only 316 came out alive. Others died horrifically, some being severed in half.

Those shark stories stuck with me even though I lived in Illinois with little chance of seeing them in the wild. Of course, the inevitable happened, and I found myself facing the Atlantic Ocean in Ft. Lauderdale in the early 1970’s. While I was excited to swim in the ocean for the first time, I discovered that I couldn’t enjoy it. Primal fears overtook me – I knew that sharks lived in these waters somewhere, so all I could do was wade in and look for tell tale dorsal fins. Just the thought of being in the same waters that sharks inhabited scared the bejubies out of me!

So, I didn’t need the hype that surrounded the release of Jaws the summer of 1975. I was prepared; in fact, I even bought the Peter Benchley novel and read it in a couple of days because I couldn’t wait for the film. Sharks may scare me, but they also fascinate.


The summer blockbuster is born

I obviously wasn’t the only one. Many others shared my phobia about sharks. It’s like the Amity mayor says, “You yell barracuda, and people say ‘huh’ … You yell ‘shark,’ and we got a panic on our hands.” 29-year old director Steven Spielberg had latched into the psyches of the entire nation. So many people flocked to the movie theaters to see Speilberg’s human eating machine, that a new monster was born – the summer blockbuster. The movie industry has never been the same.

Spielberg became Hollywood’s “golden boy,” causing a great deal of jealousy but also opening up the money coffers to do whatever movies he wanted to do. But a larger influence was the idea that Hollywood could make a huge profit by screening movies in the summer that have a large audience appeal, cater especially to younger audiences, and lend themselves to repeat viewings. Thus, Jaws was the first summer blockbuster and became the prototype for all subsequent summer fare.


Positives

While the quality of potential summer blockbusters has generally been poor over the years as they appeal to the lowest common denominator of movie watchers, Jaws actually is a better than average film. Despite all the technical challenges of filming on location in the ocean, Spielberg demonstrates his film instincts and knowledge throughout.

The main factor that makes Jaws work is Spielberg’s meticulous attention to creating suspense. We can almost sense his Hitchcockian sensibilities in this vein. Like Hitchcock, nothing is thrown into the movie without serving a purpose. From the opening shots of the credits where we are thrust into the shark’s point of view deep into the ocean, we realize that danger lurks in the water. This only intensifies with the creepy string and brass gruntings of John Williams' effective musical score as we see Chrissie’s (Susan Blacklinie) legs slowly treading water from below. We know the danger, but she doesn’t and she is violently devoured. Yet Spielberg borrows from the Master of Suspense. Just as we don’t see the murderer right away in Psycho, neither do we see the shark until much later in the film. This only adds to the suspense.

Like the Master, Speilberg doesn’t serve up mass quantities of blood and gore. He knows it’s the anticipation of horror that brings suspense, so there are relatively few killings. This is unlike the unfortunate sequel that gives us a bloodbath and sacrifices nearly every teen that appears in the movie. True horror does not depend on the number of killings; it depends on the suspense and the creative quality of the killings.

Spielberg also creates suspense by setting up scenarios that make us anticipate another shark lunch, only to surprise us. For example, early in the film Sheriff Brody’s (Roy Sheider) son talks about having a cut on his finger. Now those of us who know anything about sharks realize that this is a blatant clue that his son is in for a shark encounter, since their keen sense of smell and love of blood will send them into a feeding frenzy. Later, two men are shark fishing from the dock when a huge fish takes the bait and breaks off the dock, dragging one of the men with him. We are sure that this man will become a late night snack as the dock begins “swimming” towards the frantic man, only to catch our breath as he escapes.

If you’ve read the original Benchley novel before seeing the movie, even more surprises are in store for you. Different people get munched, so you will never be able to anticipate which characters are destined to live. We can also be thankful for a different ending. Benchley’s original one had me chuckling as it is lifted straight out of Moby Dick with the captain taking his last stabs as he and the shark descend into the depths.

There are at least two places that will make any shark fearing person jump and scream. Like Hitchcock, the young Spielberg has a sense of rhythm and adds touches of humor to the film to break up the tension. However, just as you are beginning to relax a bit, out pops a mangled head or a chomping great white shark, and the adrenaline rush begins. The action sequences with the shark attacks are well crafted using the technology available in 1975, and I find the sequence with Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) attempting to survive in the battered shark cage especially intense.

Yet while the action sequences are highlighted, Spielberg remembers basic effective filmmaking and develops characters that we can care about. He does this by showing us vignettes of the main characters to allow us to relate to them. For instance, we learn that Sheriff Brody and his wife, admirably played by Lorraine Gary, have a warm family life and are seeking a refuge away from New York City. Brody is living on Amity Island even though he hates the water; after all, “It's only an island if you look at it from the water.” He does care about the community and attempts to do the right thing, and feels very badly when the Kintner boy is needlessly killed by the shark. There’s a precious family moment that occurs as he is feeling the guilt over the boy, where his own young son copies his dad’s every gesture. It’s a much-needed break.

We also grow to enjoy Hooper’s character, primarily through his shark knowledge, his sincerity, and his sense of humor. Hooper is the one who berates the Amity mayor, telling him that he is “familiar with the fact that you are going to ignore this particular problem until it swims up and bites you on the ass!” Later, he and his natural antagonist on the Orca fishing vessel, Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) get into a small humorous “contest.” Quint crushes a can with his hand, so Hooper stares him down and crushes his styrofoam cup to bring a chuckle to the audience.

Like I mentioned, Spielberg is an excellent craftsman. There are good reasons for him to let us get to know Sheriff Brody and Matt Hooper beyond the typical stereotypes that we so often find in blockbuster movies. We even get a nice glimpse into the character of Captain Quint as he and Hooper begin swapping fish stories and comparing scars. Up to this point we’ve seen Quint as a rather crude and arrogant man, who is a competent seaman but not all that likeable. Suddenly the background music stops as Hooper asks about a tattoo that Quint has had removed and jokingly guesses that it had said “Mother.” Quint pauses, then quietly states that it had said “U.S.S. Indianapolis.” Hooper instantly becomes silent, and Quint proceeds to relate the mother of all shark tales and gain our respect for being among the 316 who survived that awful ordeal. We now understand what has driven Quint to become a shark hunter.

Quint’s story tells us a great deal about sharks. At one point he becomes slightly poetic as he describes their eyes: “The thing about a shark, it's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eyes. When it comes at you it doesn't seem to be livin'... until he bites you, and those black eyes roll over white.” Throughout the film, Spielberg teaches us about sharks, whether it’s through stories, visuals in the books that Sheriff Brody browses, or in conversations with Hooper about the contents of a tiger shark’s stomach. The fact that Jaws can teach us some new information ranks it well above most of the subsequent summer blockbusters left in its wake.


Weaknesses

While Jaws is an enjoyable movie and is educational to a degree, don’t expect it to totally uplift you or raise your consciousness. The shark facts are flawed and give them a much worse reputation than they deserve. Conservationists had to work very hard to re-educate the public about the true nature of sharks and why they should be protected. With as much garbage as we dump into our waters, something needs to help clean up the mess.

Besides the distorted facts, which can be excused because a horror story can not be properly formed around “My Friend, the Great White Shark,” the easiest target is the special effects and the sharks themselves. By today’s standards, Bruce (the nickname of the mechanical shark) looks pretty cheesy. He’s not very flexible and seems rather stiff when he climbs aboard the Orca in search of his meal. Later, during the intense shark cage scene, the sequence with the clumsy mechanical shark banging against the cage and the live action footage provided by Ron and Valerie Taylor don’t match up very well, but I was willing to suspend belief to see some spectacular real Great White footage. In actuality, Speilberg went through interminable frustrations when Bruce refused to work properly in the ocean.

Certainly a computer generated shark like the one that hops aboard ship in The Perfect Storm would look much more realistic, but that concept was inconceivable in 1975. CGI would have made Speilberg’s ocean filming a much less painful ordeal, but I still like the old fiberglass shark when he first pops up out of the water, causing Sheriff Brody to remark, “You're gonna need a bigger boat.”

While Sheriff Brody and Matt Hooper are pretty well developed, the other characters are mostly left to stereotype, and many times I found the supporting characters’ behaviors either too blatant or too unreal. OK, I understand that Captain Quint is an independent old seaman, who has a reason to hate sharks. But it bothers me to see him wreck the Orca’s communication devices, and then see him deliberately overwork his little boat to leave the three-man crew as “dead meat” for the shark.

The mayor and the business people of Amity also seem too shallow and stereotypical. While many business people do think primarily in terms of profits, the script continually clobbers us over the head with this idea, establishing a clear cut black and white case of good vs. evil. The good police chief is left powerless by the island politicians until the monster shark chews up a local in broad daylight for the whole community and the media to see. Of course, this began as a summer flick and the standard formula requires that people shouldn’t have to think here, and few can manipulate the emotions better than Spielberg.

Talking about emotional manipulation, I can’t ignore the implausible ending that is designed to send terrified audiences cheering with a patented denouement of the monster shark. Of course, we knew that man had to prevail eventually, but the odds against Sheriff Brody blasting the shark to smithereens are so great that I can never join in with the jubilant audience. I’m just left there saying, “Yeah, right!” Still, that is better than Benchley’s Ahab-like rip-off book ending, which had me shaking my head and rolling my eyes. At least Speilberg knows what his general movie audience expects and gives it to them.


A wrap

I realize that it’s fashionable to downplay Steven Spielberg’s film contributions. He was raised on film and makes films that appeal to the masses that make lots of money for the studios. That brings him praise from some quarters and severe criticism from others, and we’ve certainly been cursed with some wretched summer blockbusters after Universal Studios tested the waters in 1975. That’s not Spielberg’s fault.

Blame the lackluster blockbusters on movie studio dullards and directors who just don’t “get it” and only follow part of Spielberg’s formula. He’s a crafty filmmaker who understands pop culture and who understands the techniques of the great film directors. While Jaws certainly isn’t perfect or a great work of art, it works as a suspenseful entertainment and stays with you. Even 25 years after its creation, it holds up. I cannot say that for most other summer fare. I can’t even remember most of their titles



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