Watching Spielberg: Jaws
Watching Spielberg is a new series I’m starting where I watch a bunch of movies that Steven Spielberg directed. I love a good summer blockbuster, especially if it’s made in the mid-’90s or earlier. Spielberg is responsible for nearly all films that fit this description.
I’m not an expert, but I watch a lot of movies and have taken probably one too many film classes. That being said, film isn’t something I write about often. Expect these to be written from a very layman’s point of view.
I think everyone has certain blockbuster movies they’ve never seen. A big one for me was Titanic. When it came out, I was only five years old and by the time I was old enough to watch it, everyone I knew had already seen it. I didn’t watch it intently front-to-back until a few months ago. (It’s flawed but fantastic, for the record.)
Jaws is another one of those movies. When I’m thinking of things to watch, a 1975 shark attack movie that exists in my mind mostly for its music is not the first thing I think of.
I was surprised to find out Jaws was released in 1975. Any older than that and you’re in a territory I see as too old — a different era of Hollywood. If you’d asked me, I may have guessed this came out in 1985. A 43-year-old movie with this much cultural cache is pretty uncommon. Other ones at 40+ in this club: The Godfather? Rocky? Star Wars? The list is incredibly short. Jaws may be my new favorite.
I can’t reiterate enough how well this movie holds up. Aside from some of the sloppy shark animatronics and some clearly ’70s-specific clothing styles, you could convince me this was made in the ’90s. Maybe I’m stupid, but that’s truly how well this has stood the test of time. I’m also not sure I’ve seen a movie benefit from the “remastered” treatment more than this one. It’s gorgeous. Considering the story itself held up so well, the only hurdle to 2018 watchability would be purely aesthetic. Modern technology has removed that barrier. This is as enjoyable as anything made this year.
Given the relevancy it’s maintained for more than four decades, it’s incredible to think that the average viewer hasn’t been able to experience it as it was originally shot since it left theaters. For decades, televisions were these cruddy 4:3 boxes that were not remotely conducive to watching theatrical releases. Last night I watched it in widescreen, restored to HD, looking just as it did out of the film cameras.
The story is beautifully simple — as most great films are. A skinny-dipper is eaten by a shark. Then a kid is eaten by a shark. Then a man is eaten by a shark. They gotta go kill the shark. (I should note that we’re two minutes into the movie before there’s nudity and blood. This is a PG movie, released before PG-13 was even a thing.) The first half of the movie has a bit of an investigative vibe to it, but the second half consists entirely of three dudes on a boat shooting the crap out of an enormous shark that is determined to eat them and their boat. It’s great drama.
There are a few incredible scenes. The opener is the stuff of legends and the perfect setup, inspiring arguably the most iconic movie poster of all time. The most critically-revered scene is one that takes place on the boat (The Orca) and features Robert Shaw waxing poetic about nearly dying at Pearl Harbor on the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Then there’s Shaw’s character getting eaten alive by the shark as The Orca begins to sink. That last scene is perhaps the only thing that screamed ’70s to me. The scene dragged on a tad too long, featured a bit too much exaggerated yelling on the part of the attacked and flaunted what was clearly a fake-ass shark.
My favorite scene takes place on Fourth of July. Police chief Martin Brody knows the killer shark is still at large and warns the town’s mayor (serving as a classic villain) that he needs close the beaches. The mayor refuses and we spend the day on the beach with Brody and his family, getting familiar with a few of the beach-goers while becoming increasingly anxious to see which of them will be devoured by the invisible man-eater.
The shark finally strikes, we get the dolly zoom, and unfolds an incredible scene with swimmers young and old frantically scrambling towards the shore. It’s movie perfection.
It’s impressive that a film with such a reputation didn’t feature a more star-studded cast. There’s talent on the roster, but none of these guys are first-ballot Hall of Famers. The biggest name, in my eyes, is Richard Dreyfuss. He was swaggering around in some classic ’70s fishing town duds and it was delightful to see from an actor who exists in my mind as “The Doctor From What About Bob.” Opposite Dreyfuss are Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Murray Hamilton — all talented but largely irrelevant in the last three decades or so.
Beyond obvious triumphs are tons of little things that contribute to the larger picture. The lighting is stellar, the music is sparse and flawless, the ocean is vast and frightening, the costume and set design are perfect and the characters play off each other in such a satisfying way. There are little symbols that endure, like yellow barrels, cigarettes, harpoon guns and oxygen tanks. This was Spielberg’s first true success, released just four years after his feature-length debut. Still, it’s littered with the kind of stuff moviegoers came to expect from Spielberg in the ensuing four decades.
Hollywood in 2018 is primed to churn out quality movies and television at a rate we couldn’t have dreamed of in the ’70s, but watching Jaws does make me wish I could’ve experienced what it was like to see a single movie take over a summer — or two. Spielberg tangibly impacted beach attendance across the country, and that stuff just doesn’t happen anymore. Part of that is a product of the era and the revolutionary money and marketing thrown behind Jaws. Part of that is because the movie was good — so good that it’s still powerful 43 summers later.