JAWS – 45 Years of Terror at the Beach

Forty-five years ago, Steven Spielberg burst into the mainstream with his seminal shark thriller, “Jaws.” With its iconic lines (“You’re gonna need a bigger boat”) and world-famous theme by John Williams, “Jaws” has become a beloved cinematic experience among moviegoers all around the world. It has even entered the realm of academia. A glance at the film’s Wikipedia page yields some interesting analyses from philosophers and film theoreticians: one article claims that the shark represents the malevolent other—be it communism or Third World countries—while another claims the story is a symbolic three-way battle between science, spiritualism, and the common man, with the last of the three emerging victorious.

Although academia may not yet have agreed upon a definitive allegorical interpretation, an analysis of the film’s legacy does reveal its indubitable effect on the movie industry. Before “Jaws”, the summer movie season was a dead zone, when theaters would load up on B-movies and studios would hold off releasing any commercially important features. Then “Jaws” was released smack in the middle of June and, in addition to making a splash amongst critics, grossed a boatload of money (apologies for the water-related puns). In the post-Jaws era, the summer has become the season of the major studio blockbuster; those big-budgeted action-adventure thrillers that attract audiences in droves. And it is all because of “Jaws.”

Yet, there is a certain irony when watching the majority of summer blockbusters nowadays, especially the creature features. They often are the complete antithesis of “Jaws”; they skimp on the characters, and the big bad monsters are CGI cartoons that are fully shown within the first forty-five minutes.

In “Jaws”, the three main characters are distinctive and well-thought out: the Ahab-inspired blue-collar monomaniac shark-hunter Quint who had a traumatic experience with sharks thirty years prior, the intelligent, adventurous and sardonic oceanographer Hooper, and the strait-laced police chief Brody who has recently moved to the small beach-town of Amity from New York City because in a smaller town he feels he can make a difference. In between and preceding scenes of action, the main characters engage in long conversations ranging from comparing scars to explaining their preoccupations with their professions. These are important because they set the stage for the ever-changing dynamics between the three when they set off for the shark hunt, which prove to be as interesting as the scenes with the shark.

Additionally, direct sight of the shark is rare; indeed, for well beyond the first hour, the shark is never even seen except for the churning, bloody water and gory remains of its unfortunate victims. Spielberg knew that letting the audience’s imagination run rampant would result in more fear, and he also knew, from watching Hitchcock and classic sci-fi fare like “The Thing From Another World”, that utilizing methods keeping the shark off-camera would up the factor of suspense immensely.

Spielberg uses several clever visual methods to signal the presence of the shark. During the tail-stretch, the three characters fire harpoons at the shark, which are roped to floating barrels designed to tire and track the beast. In an earlier sequence, fisherman tie a roast to the end of a pier in an effort to catch the shark; rather, the shark simply tears down the pier and drags it to sea. In addition to demonstrating the immense strength of the beast (“It can’t go under with three barrels” someone exclaims before three barrels disappear beneath the waves), it also provides scenes of tension unfound in movies that just show the beast directly, for the only thing more terrifying than seeing a pier ripped off to sea is to see the floating pier turn around slowly and head towards a flailing swimmer.

And, in perhaps the most famous and iconic of visual cues, the film uses underwater POV shots of the shark itself, the famous score becoming faster and louder as it heads upwards towards unsuspecting beach-goers. It is worth noting that the musical theme is mostly anticipatory; once the attack commences, it is mostly drowned out by diegetic sound, the frantic splashing and pleas for help segueing into uncontrollable screaming before total silence. Once the blood spills, there is no need for accentuating accompaniments; the carnage is terrifying enough.

Eventually, however, the shark is shown and, unexpectedly, it does not disappoint, even all these decades later. In what is perhaps a blessing of timing, modern technology did not yet exist. Consequently, scenes had to be filmed on location in the middle of the ocean in Martha’s Vineyard. Further, the shark was an engineering feat, a lifelike twenty-five-foot piece of machinery and hydraulics. As a result, the razor-sharp teeth, the dead eyes, and sheer size are legitimately real, and the awe and fear of the characters transpires to the audience, especially when compared to the CGI and green-screen acting that defines today’s blockbusters.

Thus, “Jaws” is still a suspenseful good time forty-five years from when it first terrorized young movie-goers. If you are looking for a night of thrills with popcorn in hand, or are even seeking an antidote to missing the beach during the pandemic, look no further than “Jaws”.