Jaws, 40 years later… Is It Safe To Go Back in the Water Yet?
Director: Steven Spielberg.
Starring: Roy Schneider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss.
Plot: The chief of a small summer town enlists the help of a local fisherman and an out of town marine scientist to hunt down a massive Great White Shark that has been terrorising the locals.
It’s been 40 years since the movie that has been dubbed ‘the first American blockbuster’ was released in cinemas, and in those 40 years there hasn’t been anything quite like it. When has there ever been a film since that leaves an impression of fear so great that it crippled the holiday industry and made ordinary activities such as swimming, even today, shadowed by apprehension? Jaws did more than invent a new way to be scared, the film drew the audience in with it’s rich character development and a tense, high-stakes game of cat and mouse that pulls you to the edge of your seat. 40 years on, one of the greatest thrillers ever made still deserves all the credit it’s due.
Naturally, the star of the film, ‘Bruce’ (which was the name given to the great white by Spielberg), steals the show. Credit must go to the special effects team, which was lead by Robert A. Mattey, for creating not only an extremely impressive model of a shark for 1975, but a functioning animatronic shark with an actual bite force of 1 tonne; which even to this day trumps the more commonly used methods of CGI. This is, of course, not to dismiss the impressive and still growing advancements in CGI, but nothing will ever make cinema that little bit more magical than expertly hand-crafted masterpieces like Bruce the shark, who combined with genuine footage of real sharks created a truly real and menacing presence in the film.
Bruce was not without his difficulties however, as multiple problems threatened to halt and potentially end the shooting of the film, nearly making it a filmmaking disaster. Several mechanical and technical failures meant constant breaks in filming to repair and work on the shark, but ultimately it lead to a mass reduction of Bruce’s planned screen time, which had to be scrapped and never saw the light of day. This left Spielberg to improvise by coming up with underwater POV shots and the suppression of the shark’s appearance until much later in the film to magnificently build tension and anxiety. This accident in filmmaking would serve to be a pivotal part in the film’s success, as viewers found the idea of an unseen threat much more terrifying. In truth, it’s hard to imagine Jaws ever being the film it is with the initial plans to make Bruce much more prominent in the film.
Besides Bruce the shark, the film has a starring trio that consists of Roy Schneider who plays Martin Brody, a former New York police officer who relocated to Amity Island with his family to enjoy a more peaceful life, Robert Shaw who plays the reckless Captain Ahab-esque Quint, and Richard Dreyfuss who plays the young college-boy scientist, Hooper, who is eager to use his modern and technical methods in competition with Quint’s old-school no-nonsense approach in order to catch the shark. The genuine, real-life tension between Dreyfuss and Shaw helped to create a convincing rivalry and competitive nature between Hooper and Quint which is felt in every scene involving the two characters, working only to heighten the growing tensions of being out at sea and being hunted by a massive great white shark. Their relationship can almost be compared to that of Woody and Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story 20 years later in 1995, as an old vs. new battle is felt throughout the journey as Quint’s stubborn attitude prevents him allowing Hooper’s new technology to supersede Quint’s old and unreliable methods, which ultimately leads to his downfall. In the middle of it all is chief Brody, who takes personal guilt for the shark’s victims. The weight of his grief is felt by the audience who root for him as an underdog, but Brody knows nothing about fishing or sailing; not that it stops him from overseeing the venture first hand. He wants to take responsibility for what he feels is his negligence and see that the shark is taken care of. He’s a true cinematic hero.
With a vast and complex library of horror films in contemporary cinema, a lot of people have trouble categorising Jaws as a horror, or even as particularly scary. Filmmakers have found different ways to frighten new generations of cinemagoers who may dismiss the classic tension used in Jaws as boring and a slow build-up to the obvious. Whilst this may be true to an extent, for the time of 1975, it was a very real fear. There were not channels dedicated to documentaries of sharks and how little of a threat they really are to humans, and beaches weren’t always as safe as they are now. Jaws once made people think twice before going out into the water and even still today, there are still some lingering anxieties fuelled by the film. Perhaps a string of ridiculous films and parodies about sharks has made it such a laughable and irrational of a fear that’s so taboo that any future films about sharks, or even films in the style of Jaws, won’t ever be taken seriously again. Perhaps one day, even the film itself won’t be taken seriously either.
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