Chief Brody chomps a cigarette in Jaws

‘Jaws’ Gave Us the First Summer Blockbuster

Now picture this, Amity Island, 1975. A people-chomping leviathan decides to swim into town and kill several upstanding citizens and a really cute dog. Fairly worrying, right? Well sure enough Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) is doing everything he can to close the beaches and try to find a solution to catching the shark before it hurts more people. He teams up with Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) who studies all things sharks, and Quint (Robert Shaw) who just so happens to hunt and kill them. Their plan is to kill the shark and then everyone on Amity Island will be safe again. Well, that’s until Jaws 2 gets released.

Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is more than just a film. It has comfortably inserted itself into the pop culture lexicon and its importance continues to grow. How many TV shows have used the Jaws theme when conveying that danger is near? A hell of a lot. The film is quoted so much that it has fallen victim to the Mandela effect with the quote, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Jaws has been spoofed many times in TV shows and movies, and there are many films trying to cash in on the success of Jaws, such as The Last Shark, Devil Fish and Piranha. I am actually convinced that Lance Henriksen’s performance in Piranha 2: The Spawning is his version of Chief Brody. The more I watch it, the more I cannot unsee it. Even though we have potential knock-offs of Jaws, it did happen to spawn some great films in the creature feature realm such as Deep Blue Sea, Sharknado, The Meg, and The Shallows. Okay sure, they didn’t win Oscars, but they matter as they also tapped into the ‘blueprint’ of what is considered entertaining in that genre and made it work. Maybe I am a little more forgiving of craptacular shark movies, but I think it’s something where standards have got to be lowered because you can never beat Jaws.

In 1975 we were treated to an array of genres of films, but Jaws did something much different. When we look at the film, we can see that the cinematography is exceptional, the performances are phenomenal yet grounded, the plot is simple and not contrived and the music ties it all together. Those are just some of the things the film does right from a technical standpoint. But Jaws does something so much more. It melts genres. I cannot tell you how many times I see the argument on social media on whether or not Jaws is a thriller, horror or an action/adventure story. And the thing is, it’s all of those things. Jaws conveyed that those genres don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Films can be the victim of their own ideas when trying to incorporate too much. And blending too many genres can affect a film to the point where the message or overall theme is just lost and is one big mess. Jaws could have been a victim to that, but its saving grace is the script.

In case you didn’t know, Jaws is based on Peter Benchley’s best-selling novel of the same name. And while that book is a fantastic read, there are some sub-plots which at times take away from the main story. To try and be faithful plot-wise to the book wouldn’t have translated coherently in a two-hour film. Benchley was given the task of writing an adaptation of his own novel, which then was passed onto Spielberg to write his own adaptation. Howard Sackler also hopped on board to help out with an uncredited re-write but it was Carl Gottlieb who eventually became the primary writer for the script. Gottlieb, being a comedy writer, brought a lightness to the script, and changed it from a potential dark thriller into something much more. Bringing a sense of fun to the film is what really lets the audience breathe. But it manages to put the audience into a false sense of security because the gears regularly shift and a sense of dread washes over. That’s the beauty of Jaws. The terror and horror don’t overstay their welcome and become gratuitous, but the humour and light-heartedness in some scenes don’t overshadow the story to the point it just feels like a spoof.

That sense of dread that we see conveyed in Jaws carries over to our real-life experiences with the water. Chief Brody has a fear of drowning and Quint has a fear, if not hate, for sharks after what he and his crew went through on the USS Indianapolis. Hooper on the other hand is enamoured with sharks ever since a baby thresher shark attacked his boat as a child. What we can learn from these three characters is what we do as people when we stare at fear and death right in the face. Chief Brody tries to run from it, Quint attacks it, and Hooper tries to find a positive from it. And we can adopt that mentality when we watch Jaws. It has scared many generations of people from ever setting foot in the water, myself included. If I ever step foot in the water, even if it’s in a pool, I hear the Jaws theme. Pools I can eventually deal with, but the ocean? It’s a no from me. Also, I live in Western Australia where we have prominent shark sightings in the summer, so there is no way in hell I will ever go back in the ocean.

Jaws close-up

Scaring audiences for 46 years from doing something as simple as going for a swim in the ocean shows just how effective Spielberg’s filmmaking is. He tapped into our psyche on a level that it affected our everyday life and became so much more than just a film. I truly believe for that reason alone, Jaws is a lot more terrifying of a film than we give it credit for.

Jaws is my favourite film of all time, without question. I have easily spent a few weeks of my life just watching this film. For me, it never gets old. No matter how many times I have seen it, I am never bored and I never find scenes that haven’t aged well or are considered stale.
I still jump when Ben Gardner’s (Craig Kingsley) head pops out of the side of the boat, or I become slightly startled at the sound Alex Kitner (Jeffrey Voorhees) makes as he is dragged further into the water. I become in awe of Quint when he has his USS Indianapolis speech (which was penned by John Milius), and I get so fired up when I hear Chief Brody say “Smile you son-of-a-bitch.” My only wish is that I wish I could have that same feeling I got the very first time I watched it as a child. Since that cannot happen, if I ever encounter anyone who hasn’t seen it, I always tell them to make sure they watch it with the lights off, blinds and curtains shut, phones turned off, plenty of snacks on hand, and bask in all of its terrifying glory. If people do that and get a similar feeling to what I had, that’s good enough for me.

What else could be added to the conversation that hasn’t already been said in regards to Jaws? This is a film that has influenced a generation of filmmakers. It took the creature feature genre to new heights and spawned sequels, knock-offs and love letters in filmmaking. Since its release in 1975, it paved the way for a new style of film and how to market it. Jaws won awards, broke box office records and changed the course of filmmaking as we know it. Its influence still stands, and it always will…until the nuclear apocalypse from Terminator 2 happens.

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