Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Premise: A great white shark begins stalking the beaches of a New England resort town. After repeated attacks, the local police chief (Roy Scheider), a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss), and a fisherman (Robert Shaw) must hunt the animal and destroy it.
What Works: Some critics have tried to diminish Jaws because its blockbuster success signaled the decline of the New Hollywood period and the beginning of corporate control over film production. That is not a fair accusation to the filmmakers or to the film, which is one of Steven Spielberg’s best works. This film is as well crafted as anything from the period. The cinematography is comprised of perfectly composed shots, many o which are handheld, and assembled through very skillful editing. The second shark attack of the film, in which a boy is attacked on an inflatable raft, is a sequence worth studying by anyone interested in how cinema works. The scene uses subjective and objective angles, wipes, and cuts all with purpose to suggest the imminent threat and make the perspective of the scene clear; it is ostensibly about the attack on the boy but the subtext is about the paranoia of the police chief and his duty to the citizens. Many scenes in Jaws show this kind of artistic complexity and that alone separates it from so many imitators. The sound design of Jaws is also extremely impressive, using silence or just the gentle sound of water lapping the side of the boat to suggest the danger just beneath the surface of the water. John Williams provides one of the most iconic musical scores of his career and what is very interesting about it is the way in which the music is placed. The film uses a Pavlovian technique, associating the shark with the musical motif and then using it to cause anticipation or fear. As a New Hollywood film, Jaws is a picture that puts a lot of focus on masculinity and finds some new angles on it. Roy Scheider stars as Martin Brody, the chief of police, and in many ways Brody is the essential modern hero. He is caught between his duties to public safety and the public’s economic needs, and the tension between those two conflicting ideals causes him considerable guilt. Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw are terrific as well, one a rich scientist and the other a blue collar fisherman, and the tension between them adds to the excitement and fear of the chase. Also relevant to Jaws as a horror film of the New Hollywood movement is the conflict between nature and man. Many of the horror films of this time such as The Exorcist, Night of the Living Dead, and The Hills Have Eyes forced their heroes to deal with the irrational and the bestial. Jaws does this as well, bringing man and animal closer and closer together and constantly undermining mankind’s ability to assert dominion over the earth.
What Doesn’t: As a film of its time, viewers do need to recognize that Jaws was made before the advanced special effects of today. Most of the special effects hold up just fine but viewers who are expecting some grandiose visuals like Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong should be prepared to judge the film based on the context in which it was made.
DVD extras: The 30th Anniversary edition contains a documentary, featurettes, image galleries, trailers, deleted scenes, and outtakes.
Bottom Line: Jaws remains one of Steven Spielberg’s best films. Everything about Jaws as a piece of cinema makes this as perfect as a film can be and it manages to thrill and frighten decades after its release.
Episode: #210 (October 26, 2008)