Jurassic World‘s cinema release in 2015 marks just over 20 years since Steven Spielberg re-wrote the monster movie with the original Jurassic Park, but it’s a full 40 since he changed cinema forever with the incredible Jaws. And it’s looking like a teenager. The current Blu-Ray release is stunning quality and it’s striking how fresh the film still is; it’s still one of the best of that kind of film and likely to remain so for some time.
But what kind of film is it exactly? Obviously horror and bearing more than a passing resemblance to Hitchcock’s The Birds, yet also an event film. Along with Superman and Star Wars, Jaws ushered in the era of the original ‘blockbuster’. Some would argue that’s a bad thing, but while these films did open up the ruthlessly commercial side of cinema more than ever before, with a noisy focus on franchise and merchandise rather than art, it was a long time coming and these early films were made with the best of intentions and bucket loads of talent.
The first theatrical film for Spielberg (his debut Duel was made for TV) Jaws is arguably still his best film, full of invention in every frame and a superb, ambitious screenplay. It’s particularly astonishing to watch the editing (with Verna Fields) and compositions, the way the simplest of exchanges are injected with energy. Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai) would always ensure there was movement in every scene he composed, often simply with weather in the background. As well as famous shots such as the three-step zoom on the beach, Spielberg achieves a similar ambition, yet it never feels gratuitous. Although some of his later work can be over-engineered, the mise en scene of Jaws is perfectly measured. The camera roams when it needs to roam, and lingers when it should linger. And of course John Williams’ score provides the rhythm. Often imitated, it’s only when you see the film again you can really appreciate just how brilliant that theme is. It creeps into the back of your brain ratcheting up the tension.
It’s exhilarating stuff and every time I see Jaws there is something new, but on this last occasion I was paying more attention to the screenplay and considering the popular critical idea that it isn’t about a shark at all. It’s about divorce. Bit random, I know! There’s definitely a very large shark in the film and it does seem to have grabbed everyone’s attention. Then again there should be a reason for the creature.
The best movie monsters represent a single character’s more mundane real-world demon (or a country’s, with Japan’s fear of nuclear armageddon represented by Godzilla). In this case it’s Roy Schneider’s police chief and while there is nothing explicit about a difficult relationship with his wife Ellen (Lorraine Gary) -on the contrary, they seem happy- there is a melancholy bubbling to the surface. Read between the lines and this is a marriage being worked at. Chief Brody’s family are new to the town and it is inferred they moved from New York to a more idyllic lifestyle, escaping a violent job. Ironic that Brody finds in Amity a more singular deadly risk yet he is determined to deal with it despite his aversion to water and boats. That determination becomes all-consuming, almost as if he needs the distraction.
The film is fairly neatly split into two halves: ‘Not On The Boat’ and ‘On The Boat’. When Brody eventually steps aboard The Orca with Oceanologist and shark-expert Matt (Richard Dreyfuss, in fine form) and gnarly old shark-hunter Quint (the intimidating Robert Shaw), the brief emotional scene with Ellen suggests an amicable trial separation. If he fails to kill off his shark-shaped demon he won’t be coming home.
It is to Spielberg’s credit that he could translate the various and shifting tones in Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb’s screenplay (based on Benchley’s own novel) into a narrative at once affecting and thrilling. For all his enthusiasm to skilfully scare the crap out of us with horrific moments, including the opening attack on a skinny-dipper or a young boy taken in a shower of blood in front of a crowded beach, the composition of the quieter scenes have as strong an effect. Note the moment at dinner where Brody’s youngest son mimics his pre-occupied dad; or on the boat comparing scars, where Brody keeps potentially the best one quiet, before Quint tells the haunting story of the USS Indianapolis. This is already a thriller of the highest quality and that shark is still yet to be seen properly.
The magnificent beast was created by Bob Mattey and is a mile-stone achievement in animatronic effects. Well, when it worked! Spielberg himself has admitted that he probably made a better film because of the problems with Bruce (the affectionate nickname for the shark, apparently inspired by Spielberg’s lawyer) limiting his plans and it makes you wonder how much higher standards could be now if filmmakers hadn’t a CGI safety net to rely on. As it is the brief glimpses of the shark are deeply unsettling, especially when you see the size of him compared to The Orca. And when he finally makes his full entrance? Just keep telling yourself, he’s 40 years old and made of fibre-glass! It won’t work though.
The shark is all the more powerful an image for the false sense of security built up by Bill Butler’s gorgeous cinematography. From snappy hand-held work to the wonderful and serene skylines, the film looks gorgeous throughout. One of those rare movies where you could pause at any moment and you’ll probably get an image worth framing. Visually the film’s a masterpiece, with or without the shark. That’s where so many pretenders fall short; focusing too much on the monster, putting everything else in service to its appearance. Alien is another example of building the characters and sets so well that the creature has that much more power when it finally does strike because it is as real a place as possible that is being attacked.
Forty years on Jaws still retains considerable power. It is as thrilling and at times as scary as anything else in the genre. The fear of sharks may be misappropriated, but it’s still a primal dread that will never dissipate, if only because audiences want to be scared that much.