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Movie Review: JAWS, Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blockbuster

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Ask any film historian (well, most of them, anyways), and he/she is almost guaranteed to concede that Jaws popularized the blockbuster entertainment to such a degree that it became the most dominant movie form in the land.  We now live in an era where every studio measures their successes and failures on the box office performance of an Avengers or a Dark Knight or a John Carter, and – according to critics – ‘twas not so until Jaws overtook movie theaters in 1975.  Goodbye to intimate, heartfelt character dramas; hello to Michael Bay and the Theater of the Extreme!

Of course, even with an increased blockbuster frequency, studios still manage to give viewers more artistic merit than we give them credit for (recent critical/commercial hits like The Social Network, The Help, and The King’s Speech wouldn’t exist if every movie really was Mission: Impossible-scaled).  Furthermore, no matter what Peter Biskind might tell you (look him up), Jaws wasn’t even the first blockbuster.  The genre’s pageantry stretches all the way back to Birth of a Nation (1915) and runs through Ben-Hur (1925, 1959), The Ten Commandments (1923, 1956), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962); and one can see its trademark favoring of large-sized thrills over coherence/intelligence in the pre-Jaws, “disaster movie” cinema that includes Airport (1970), The Poseidon Adventure (1972), and The Towering Inferno (1974).  But I’ll allow that these films were the exception and not the rule in Hollywood moviemaking, and that Jaws helped shift the scales in the other direction.

Still, it begs the question: why?  If Hollywood had been churning out blockbuster-type fare since the early days of its inception, what made Jaws so special?  Was it that crucial, final piece of media saturation, the one that overwhelmed our defenses?  Were audiences tiring of the intense, morally ambiguous, and often violent auteur-driven flicks of the late 1960s and early 1970s?  Did we just want some cotton candy to suck on?

I suspect a far simpler answer.  At the end of the day, Jaws is still the finest Hollywood blockbuster ever produced.  Divorce it from that particular filmmaking trend, and it’s something even more marvelous: a perfect movie.

Its narrative drive is simple; its themes elemental.  A giant Great White Shark is terrorizing the New England beach community of Amity, and it’s up to the chief of police (Roy Scheider), an oceanographer (Richard Dreyfuss), and an unhinged fisherman (Robert Shaw).  Spielberg and a small army of screenwriters that includes Jaws novelist Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb, Howard Sackler, Matthew Robbins, Hal Barwood, John Milius, and Shaw himself bring some nice shadings to the milieu surrounding the shark (how the attacks threaten Amity’s summer tourism earnings; the media shitstorm that erupts once the rest of the country gets word of the shark), but at the end of the day, what we remember most are Scheider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw, trying like hell to kill the beast without turning on each other in the process.

That’s the interesting thing about this quintessential summer blockbuster: it feels so tiny when placed next to its contemporary progeny (Inception, Armageddon, Spielberg’s own Jurassic Park features).  The first hour takes place on Amity’s shores, as Scheider’s Sheriff Brody and Dreyfuss’ Matt Hooper finds themselves one step (fin?) behind the shark and a small-town bureaucracy that favors silence over potential revenue losses, and this opening half resembles nothing so ambitious as a breezy, insanely well directed slasher movie.  There’s an attack immediately post-credits to establish the menace, a lot of wheel-spinning investigations into the shark’s patterns, and a shock every ten minutes or so to keep the audience interested.  Spielberg brings his trademark proscenium-abandoning eye to the proceedings – the brutal death of a young boy and the shark’s attack on an overcrowded beach still rank as two of the finest setpieces he’s ever crafted – and Scheider and Dreyfuss share a wonderful Mutt and Jeff buddy chemistry, but the template is more Halloween than it is Pirates of the Caribbean.

And then a funny thing happens.  Shaw’s Captain Quint conscripts Brody and Hooper to help him hunt the shark on the open sea, and Jaws‘ scope simultaneously expands and contracts.  Expands, in that Amity’s quaint shores and picket fences give way to the sea’s terrifying expanses (in a canny move, Spielberg never photographs dry land during the picture’s last half – once we’re on Quint’s boat, we’re stuck there).  Contracts, in that the large cast of characters shrinks to just three – Brody, Hooper, and Quint – and their ways of pursuing the shark define their respective personalities better than any psych test could.

Brody is one of Spielberg’s great Everymen, and what defines him isn’t ability so much as it is sanity.  We see him bungle almost every duty Quint gives him (and after he fails, he impotently blasts away at the shark with his service revolver), but he’s our hero because he’s the only one not undone by his own mania.  The fast-talking Hooper is so sea-and-shark obsessed that he insists on being lowered into the water with only a flimsy metal cage standing between him and bloody death, while Quint’s only concern is killing the shark – it’s immaterial to him if he (or anyone else) survives the battle.  Quint is raging, untethered masculinity, biting open beer cans and trying to reel in the massive fish as if it were a trout, and he seems a ludicrous (albeit funny) characterture until he tells us how he endured the World War II Indianapolis shark attack, and it all makes sense.  Whatever was human in him died while the Indianapolis sunk, leaving only Ahab-ian rage at all sharks.  That Hooper would try to ape Quint’s bravado (in a partially improvised series of running gags inspired by the real-life enmity between Shaw and Dreyfuss) speaks volumes about his own mental well-being, and when Quint goes ballistic and destroys the ship’s radio to keep Brody from calling in for extra help, Jaws takes on an absurdist, existential humor that recalls Sartre and Beckett as much as it does Hemingway or London.

In its balancing of action and character, Jaws deserves comparison with John Ford’s Stagecoach or Howard Hawks’ Red River or John Frankenheimer’s The Train, and that human connection matters.  Despite all the thrilling sea chases and shark attacks and disintegrating ships, at heart, Jaws is about three unique, interesting, gently cracked men trying to do the right thing in three very different ways, and driving each other crazy in the process.  We care about the movie because we care about them, and it makes all the difference in the world.

Universal’s Blu-ray is a thing of beauty; newly restored, the picture looks sharper and more film-like that it did in 1975.  As for the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track: it’s immersive and sharp, but a hair too over-processed for my liking.  Best to go with the monaural DTS track that more closely replicates Jaws‘ original mix.

Features are ideal for the Jaws enthusiast. Laurent Bouzereau’s full-length (two hours long), as-interesting-as-the-movie-itself making-of documentary is included, as is the equally comprehensive The Shark is Still Working: The Impact and Legacy of Jaws feature.  Those two alone would make for a standout set, but we also get a featurette on the film’s restoration, a vintage making-of documentary, thirteen minutes of deleted scenes, a marketing archive, the theatrical trailer, and DVD & Digital copies.

This is a perfect Blu-ray for a perfect film.  Not only has Jaws endured, it’s only gotten better with age: richer, funnier, more thrilling.  It’s the film that taught us how to stop worrying and love the blockbuster – no small feat, indeed.

Jaws streets on August 14th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.