Let’s get one thing straight; JAWS is not simply a shark movie. It is THE shark movie. It is the shark movie that all other shark movies get instantly compared to. But why is that? Why is it that whenever Hollywood announce a new man-eating shark film is to be released, the cinematic audiences automatically state “I bet JAWS is still going to be better?”
Maybe it’s because JAWS isn’t just about a man-eating fish that terrorizes a small island community. Sure, there is a shark in the film who does terrorize the community of Amity Island. And sure, on all movie merchandise there is a large shark swimming up from the depths to devour a swimmer. And sure, an entire generation of cinema fans decided to spend their summers indoors, by the air conditioner, as opposed to at the beach for fear of becoming a victim to what lurks below the smooth, glassy surface of the water. But putting all that aside, JAWS is so much more complex. The novel itself reads like a classic horror movie; a cautionary tale of woe, paranoia, small-town politics and corruption, and a coming of age where one must stand up and fight.
Forty plus years since its release, JAWS is still terrifying audiences and influencing the film industry. Even today, the movie remains one of the scariest films of all time. Alien was one described as “JAWS in space”, while Australia’s own Razorback was famously called “JAWS on trotters” by film critics.
Why is it so iconic?
First thing is first, even if you don’t like horror movies, you are still guaranteed to have seen JAWS. Horror films do get a bad reputation, and some of that reputation can be justified. Rarely do we see a horror movie nominated for an Academy Award, despite some films from the genre possessing refined and beautiful work. JAWS, however, transcends boundaries. It isn’t just a horror movie, nor is it only aimed at adults. It’s a film the whole family can enjoy. I was 10 when I first encountered JAWS with my Nanna, who was in her seventies. Even to this day, the moment that music is played, you better believe I’m sitting in front of the television, popcorn in hand, ready to return to Amity Island.
And speaking of music, let’s take a moment to appreciate John Williams’ iconic score. It’s simplistic and yet so effective. The reoccurring notes (E and F played alternately) has become pop culture’s theme tune of impending doom. Even though Spielberg’s robotic shark malfunctioned constantly, this simple tune alerted audiences to something monstrous and sinister that was lurking in the depths. Those notes are so iconic that I do not recommend humming them while sitting on a surfboard with your buddies (true story), and have landed the score on the AFI’s 100 Years of Film Score list at number 6.
Pop culture is another reason why this this film remains afloat. Who can forget Marty McFly in Back To The Future II being devoured by a 3D hologram spectacle from JAWS 19? Or how about the iconic movie poster, that has the woman swimming above the open-mouthed monstrous great white, was the basis for a number of political cartoons of the time? Or how about the number of allusions to the movie in television shows and other films? If I were to name all the references, we’d be here forever, but The Simpsons and Family Guy have given JAWS a new lease on life, targeting a new generation, while the drug drama Blow, also made reference to this 1975 classic. Take away the merchandising which can include soundtrack CDs, tshirts, posters, toys, even videogames, and the film still maintains its place. People are still quoting the line “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” and “Smile, you son of a bitch!” while others continue to hum the two-note theme that John Williams made so iconic. In a way, the film has grown bigger than itself that it’s one of the few movies that exist in the lives of people who haven’t actually seen it, though I am yet to find anyone who hasn’t sat through at least one viewing.
But while all of the above have kept the film relevant in recent years, what keeps audiences returning is the story itself. The fear of the unknown was a fantastic ploy that hid the menace in our own imaginations, heightening the tension and making the shark’s eventual reveal all that more riveting. That was mostly due to the fact that the shark didn’t work correctly for most of the film. This could have been a problem, but Spielberg made sure it wasn’t by inferring the shark’s existence through various techniques; the POV (point of view) camera shots photographed underwater, the reactions from the characters, the musical score, or even something more obvious like the shark’s fin slicing through the water. Spielberg even used other props to mask the shark. The jetty that comes apart while the two men were midnight fishing with their wife’s Sunday roast, or even the two barrels used by Quint to bring the shark to the surface. These stand-in props were successful in allowing our imaginations to wander, thus building up the tension within ourselves. They have also been imitated, though never replicated.
While the fear of the unknown played a pivotal role in the film, it was the three perfectly cast actors in three fantastic roles that sealed the deal. From the old sea dog Quint (Robert Shaw) to the over-eager Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and the ocean-phobic sheriff Chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the complexity, and camaraderie, of these leading men give JAWS a leg up on the competition.
Most modern day shark films don’t care about the character development, often dictating that more deaths equal big bucks. Reality is, audiences want to cheer for a character. They want to love a character, or hate a character. They don’t want a stereotypical, generic group of actors. They want people who can carry the film on their own. They want to feel SOMETHING. From Brody’s paranoia, to Quint and Hooper butting heads over shark theories, JAWS delivered real people that cinema goers for forty plus years have cheered on. Even Larry Vaughn, the bumbling, non-believing mayor who wanted to keep the beaches open had his moments of brilliance where you couldn’t help but feel like you wanted to feed him to the shark.
JAWS redefined monster movies, preying on genuine fears. This wasn’t The Creature From The Black Lagoon. It wasn’t a man in a suit. It was a live animal that does have a history of causing fatalities. Upon its release in 1975, beach attendance was down however movie attendance was high. JAWS was the first film to break $100 million dollars at the box office, a task which was once thought of as impossible. It beat out The Exorcist, which had taken in $89 million just two years earlier.
Shark films have a stigma attached thanks to the success of JAWS. They’re either a direct knock off, or what could only be described as comedies with horrendous acting, bad storytelling, and terrible direction. But there have been a couple of stand outs in recent years. The Reef and Open Water took real life incidents and turned them into film, while The Shallows was an unsung hero of 2016. The Reef took the tension to a whole new level by fusing real footage of a large Great White with the actors. The way in which the movie puts you amongst the actors is really well done. You feel like you are there with them. When the camera dips under the surface of the water with the bobbing motion of the waves you get little glimpses of what lies beneath. But the film pales in comparison to JAWS. Why? The atmosphere. Yes, The Reef is tense (ranking second on my top 10 list of shark movies) but it lacks the character development. I don’t feel for any of them, and after watching Suzie completely lose it over the death of her partner, I was praying the shark would eat her just so the screaming would stop. Hatred aplenty, but no love for these characters.
Even far-fetched stories like Sharknado and Deep Blue Sea don’t live up to the memory that is JAWS. While Deep Blue Sea is a fan favourite, the three Mako sharks don’t seem to possess the hype that surrounds a Great White. Also, the JAWS references in the film were quite the homage. For example, the number plate pulled from the mouth was the same one Hooper pulled from the Tiger shark on the dock. Even the director of had said “The problem with approaching a shark movie is how do you do it without repeating JAWS?” Simply put, you can’t.
The JAWS franchise did try to recapture the magic of the first film with three sequels. While the second installment was well done, with Roy Scheider returning to his role as Chief Brody, parts three and four failed to live up to the name, though there are a few fans that do love all four films.
JAWS has stood the test of time because everything about the film works. Relatable characters, realistic situation, phenomenal atmosphere. Even the obvious flaws that the film possess has its charm and place. Steven Spielberg’s direction was the catalyst behind this blockbuster. He went over budget, had countless issues with the mechanical shark, and had the studio breathing down his neck, but he kept his composure, giving the world a new outlook on monster movies and scaring an entire generation (as well as many generations that followed) out of the water.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, all this talk about JAWS has me wanting to go swimming…