“You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Often credited as the first summer blockbuster, Jaws was a phenomenon of filmmaking and the first acclaimed hit from iconic director Steven Spielberg (who I’m certain must be the most represented director on the AFI 100). It’s a legendary piece of film, whether you enjoy it or not, and this isn’t just in the sense that it’s a great film. Jaws broke new ground in a wide array of cinematic categories including the thriller, horror, and monster movie genres. There’s really no similar film that came before 1975, nothing that captures suspense and terror in such a powerful way, and there haven’t been a whole lot of these films since. There’s a sort of calculation to Jaws where Spielberg has cracked the perfect formula, the exact ratios and elements for the most suspenseful thriller you could put on a screen, and it had me captivated from start to finish.
Jaws tells the story of Martin Brody (Roy Schneider), police chief of a small New England island resort. When bodies start washing up on the shore, Brody must take on the largest, most vicious shark this island has ever seen. He is eventually aided by professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and aquatic life expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). When the men finally sail into the ocean and cast their sights on the creature, they realize they’ve underestimated their threat and risk losing their lives in the process. It’s a terrifying, well-crafted story that hits every beat flawlessly and leaves you in uncomfortable suspense in the most effective of ways.
This is probably what impressed me most about the film, the way it lays out its story for maximum terror. In an almost Hitchcockian sense, Spielberg places a horrifying, wildly unpredictable element of suspense in his narrative: a big shark. While one might be skeptical of the actual impact of a single shark on an island of people, the film’s screenplay does a great job of placing the characters in the most unsettling of situations for the viewer. Every single shot of the ocean is fair game for an attack, so you’re left on the edge of your seat for almost two hours straight. Many scenes serve as false alarms, detractors from the real moments of attack, and Spielberg continues to toy with his audience like this until you’re unsure when to let yourself breathe. It’s a playful but truly calculated approach to suspense that pays off in spades for the film’s benefit.
All terror aside, Jaws is also surprisingly impressive in how dynamic and well-written it is. Quint’s famous Indianapolis story is one of the most captivating monologues I’ve ever seen, and it works tremendously to enhance character. It didn’t have to be there, but it is, and that’s what makes this movie so great. Anyone who tries to blame Jaws for giving us the summer blockbuster that so many despise today are completely misguided. By today’s standards, Jaws is far from a summer blockbuster. It’s a near-flawless story that’s original and captivating to no end. When you hear the characters speak, you almost get a sense of poetry to the film. One could likely argue that the movie isn’t about the shark; it’s about the three men and how they choose to live their lives and what they fear.
This is a film that not only executes its concept flawlessly, but it has interesting characters and lots of great side material to compound the delight of watching the movie. You don’t see so many neat little touches in summer blockbusters these days: fun one-off lines, rich character development, and an overall sense of quality in which the filmmaker presents not only a great story but a dynamic world. It’s this sort of writing that sets Jaws apart from the contemporary blockbuster and from most films of its genre. There’s so much care placed in every scene of this movie that it just radiates quality and artistry. It’s a horror movie that’s written like a Best Picture biopic, and we need more movies like this to push the genre forward.
I really enjoyed this film, and I’m constantly impressed by the quality of entertainment in Spielberg’s films. This is a man who, even early on, knew how to captivate a packed movie theater audience and make the movie-going experience into something special. He made movies not just for himself or to make some statement, but he made movies that people wanted to see. I would rank Jaws pretty highly among his filmography. Out of all his works, it feels among the most unique and rich. The magic of the 1970s and the New Hollywood era coupled with one of the strongest budding cinematic minds of the time gives us this undoubtedly phenomenal film, and I already can’t wait to see it again soon.
Films Left to Watch: 903