Jaws is Steven Spielberg’s most well-known film. I think. It’s certainly his first well-known film, and while I don’t know the whole story, I do know that the production was riddled with challenges and rewrites and that many in the cast and crew anticipated this would be a bomb at the box office.
According to boxofficemojo.com, Jaws has made $260 million on a $7 million budget. That’s a lot of money, also, it’s rated PG?
I last saw Jaws years ago, I’m not sure how many but it was a lot. I just remembered the broad strokes, the blood, the severed limbs, the dead head midway through the film, etc. I can’t believe this was rated PG.
The other thing I didn’t remember was the levity. Spielberg makes a concerted effort to balance the thrills with humor. Every good movie should do this on some level because life can be funny enough of the time to justify this depiction onscreen. It also helps balance the film when there is so much to be scared of, like a hungry shark.
In the most recent season of Game of Thrones, there was a scene in which Tyrion Lannister (Peter Dinklage) and a few other characters traded jokes. There was little to no plot movement in this scene, and it felt a little out of place. But I read in one particular episodic review that such a scene was important as it showed that these characters enjoy their lives for the most part. That show is so violent and gory that it’s easy to think living in that world just wouldn’t be worth it, but the filmmakers behind that episode felt it important to show that, yes, it is worth it.
A show that often suffers from a lack of levity is The Walking Dead. Every episode tries to show you who dangerous and bad everything is, but humans are adaptable. I’m not saying living in a post-apocalyptic world with flesh-eating zombies would be a walk in the park, but at a certain point I’d get used to it. Sure that might take a decade of survival to get to that point, but if I didn’t get used to it, why would I choose to keep on living?
That’s a bit dramatic, but it’s important to show certain life-affirming moments in films with such challenges at these. It also helps to show why people fight and what they’re fighting for. Hell, another Spielberg movie, Jurassic Park, has the line “life finds a way,” even though in context that refers to the unbelievable reproduction capabilities of enhanced dinosaurs.
The levity I’m referring to in Jaws is “that’s some bad hat, Harry,” and “We’re going to need a bigger boat,” most notably. There’s also a scene where our protagonist is stressed, and his young son mimics his mannerisms at a dinner table. The film takes time to show these small, funny moments.
So back to the point I’m trying to make. Jaws is effective because while the shark attack scenes are exhilarating, the quiet scenes in the middle are just as impactful. Most of the film is the stuff in the middle. Most of any disaster film is the stuff in the middle, setting up the characters, the stakes, the situation, all that jazz.
And in Jaws, Police Chief Martin Brody has to face off with the shark and also pressure from the city council to keep the beaches open. After the first shark attack, which the councilmen pressure Brody into believing was a boating accident, Brody wants to close the beaches only to be told “no.” This is a summer beach town, and this is Brody’s first summer here. He came from New York (continuing the trend of city folk out of their element in smaller towns in Spielberg movies), and he doesn’t understand the way things run here. He doesn’t even swim, that’s how alien he is to this area.
So there’s a second shark attack in broad daylight, and all hell breaks loose. It’s a very effective scene, comical in it’s own way. Brody sits on the beach, surrounded by a myriad of beach-goers. There are people in the water already. Brody sees a mysterious shape in the water, drumming up the suspense, but it turns out to be someone with a shark-colored swimming cap. Then a woman screams, but it’s only her boyfriend playing with her in the water. Then a group of kids get up all at once and go into the water, making matters worse. In this scene, Brody has people come up to talk to him, including “bad hat Harry:”
Brody is forced to crane his neck to see past people who come up to him, and it creates this layered view in which the frame is split so that multiple distances are both in focus, like in this image:
You can see the fuzzy quality around the man’s head where the frame is dissolved to show another shot with the ocean in focus. It helps portray Brody’s frame of mind, hyper-vigilant and always on the lookout, particularly when everyone else is blind to the danger, facing away from the action.
This comes into play later when Brody, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Captain Quint (Robert Shaw) are onboard Quint’s ship, trying to kill the shark in open waters. Brody faces away from the water, and the camera is framed so that there’s this vast section of the screen that only shows the water. It’s set up perfectly for a jump scare, with the shark leaping from the water towards him. I guess the moment you stop paying attention, you’re in danger.
So after the second shark attack, a bunch of people go out to kill the shark and win a $3,000 award. They find and kill a shark, but a shark specialist, Hooper, tells Brody it’s the wrong shark, based on bite radius.
It takes another shark attack for everyone to realize Hooper is correct. In a somber moment, the councilman who ordered the beaches to remain open essentially apologizes to Brody and says that his kid was on that beach too, signaling that he realizes the consequences of his actions. Jaws is good at humanizing everyone. There’s a moment with Brody and Hooper alone on Hooper’s boat at night in which Hooper implies that his family is incredibly wealthy. It doesn’t add much of anything to the plot, but just that detail makes him feel more three-dimensional. It also contrasts him with the working class boat Captain Quint who the two are teamed up with later.
Brody, Hooper and Quint spend the second half of the film out at sea, hunting the shark. The shark damages the boat and kills Quint as the ship is sinking. Then, when all else has failed and the boat slowly sinks, Brody shoots a canister of compressed air in the shark’s mouth, exploding and killing the shark.
Okay, so back to my idea of torment and wish fulfillment in Spielberg’s films. The torment in Jaws is obvious: the shark. During the commotion at the beach during one of the shark attacks, there is a shot of a kid singing “do you know the muffin man,” innocently. It’s just like baby Langston in The Sugarland Express playing in his front yard.
When people run hurriedly by this kid, he looks this way and that, agitated by the commotion. It’s a little tough to watch, again like baby Langston. In the water during the commotion, a man charges over kids in the water, desperate to get to land. Shoving the kids out of the way paints them as truly powerless, at least compared to someone bigger and stronger.
So that’s what the shark is: bigger and stronger. That’s also what causes trouble in so many of Spielberg’s films.
The wish fulfillment aspect comes in the shape of Matt Hooper. He studies sharks for a living, and he loves sharks. He’s obsessed with them and is in awe of their beauty. When the three men spot the shark in the open water, Hooper is quick to grab his camera while the others grab guns. This whole situation is terrifying, yet he maintains his childlike wonder at the spectacle of the enormous shark. The crazy, intense creatures and situations in Spielberg’s films are at once dangerous and awe-inspiring. It’s an intrusion of the amazing on the ordinary, or something along those lines.
The shark is monstrous, like the oil tanker in Duel and the devil in Something Evil. Even the way Spielberg films the shark attacks echoes those films. Mechanical errors with the robot shark forced them to improvise and show less of the actual shark onscreen. It takes a while before we even see the shark beyond a glimpse of the fin sticking out of the water. Instead, famously, we see from the shark’s perspective as it gets closer and closer to its victims. This is the same way the devil was shot in Something Evil and in that situation, like this one, Spielberg had to improvise because there was no demon or spirit to film. He had to get creative. One last similar example is the way we viewed the road from the car’s perspective in Duel.
So Spielberg has used this technique before to effective results. It’s not until midway through the film (the second beach shark attack) that we actually see the shark, and it’s brutal. We also see a severed leg sink to the bottom of the shallow ocean, so it’s all pretty gory. Even though we see the shark, it is partially obscured by the water which helps conceal the probably flaws in the robot’s design.
Another similarity to Spielberg’s last film, The Sugarland Express, is the jarring, violent cuts he uses when the kids are splashing cheerfully in the water. It mirrors the editing style of the shootout in Sugarland with quick cuts back and forth that might make the audience a little dizzy and uncomfortable. It’s the opposite of soothing, basically.
So what else is there to say? This film was a hit, and I’m guessing a lot of films tried to copy this one. You have other films about sharks, even Jaws sequels. Every disaster movie tries to show you that the main character’s family is in danger, at some point. That does happen here with Brody’s son narrowly escaping a shark attack, but it’s not the central plot movement of the film. It might help spur Brody into action, but the danger extends beyond just his family.
Jaws is so effective because, as I mentioned earlier, it is a strong dramatic film outside of the shark attacks. There’s a human drama going on with Brody as a fish out of water in this small town trying to find his footing and assert himself in a town that treats him as unnecessary.
When he succeeds on the personal level, it comes at the cost of another human life lost to the shark. Yes he is shown to be right, but the consequences add to his extreme guilt, and he still has to catch and kill the shark.
Jaws is a human story about human characters faced with great dangers. The film is about an ordinary guy dealing with an extraordinary problem, and it continues to suggest that anyone can get caught up in these crazy incidents, not just traditional heroes but everyday people.