- Director: Steven Spielberg
- Writers: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, based on the novel by Peter Benchley
- Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, and Murray Hamilton
- Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#54), 3 Oscars (Best Original Score, Best Film Editing, Best Sound). 1 additional Oscar nomination (Best Picture)
- Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV
It can be difficult today to separate Jaws as a movie from the impact it had on the movie business. It is the prototypical summer blockbuster, and in recent years blockbusters have taken on an importance for studios to such an extent that I get the impression that some film fans tend to take that out on Jaws as a matter of principle. But the movie can’t help the lessons other people took from it as a business venture. As a movie, it is just really, really good. The material is pure schlock silliness, yet director Steven Spielberg and co. execute it so well that it rises to another level. There is a long third act where the lead trio of men are on a boat hunting the shark, only for it to start hunting them, and I honestly don’t think it could have been pulled off any better. The rest of the movie is pretty good, too.
For those benighted souls who are unfamiliar, Jaws is about a series of shark attacks on the fictional Amity Island. Roy Scheider plays the island’s outsider sheriff, whose pleas for the mayor (Murray Hamilton) to shut down the town’s beaches before more people are eaten fall on deaf ears. He is assisted by a hotshot oceanographer played by Richard Dreyfuss (only two years after he played a teenager in American Graffiti). The two of them hire crusty local captain Quint (Robert Shaw, who reportedly based his completely nuts performance on a local Martha’s Vineyard fisherman) to go after the shark, leading to the climactic hunt. That’s really all there is to it, but Spielberg makes a heck of a movie out of that material.
The movie is still considered a masterclass in the basics of filmmaking, but at least some of the decisions that are now studied in film classes were forced on Spielberg by the circumstances of production. This was only his second studio movie, and the one that made him a household name, and he would later admit that his lack of experience led to some of the problems during shooting. It is often cited that you don’t actually see the shark until an hour into the movie, but this wasn’t intentional. The mechanical shark basically didn’t work (Spielberg had originally wanted to use an actual “trained shark,” and had to be told that was not a thing), so he had to shoot around it as much as possible. Spielberg had insisted on shooting on the actual ocean, and the boat scenes were all filmed off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. This was the first Hollywood movie to try this, and there was a reason for that: it is really, really hard to shoot a movie out in the open ocean out of sight of land. In the end, Jaws suffered from frequent production delays and went way over budget.
All of this would be forgiven, however, when it became a megahit. Universal gave Jaws the type of ultra-wide release that is now common in superhero blockbusters but at the time was considered unusual, and was rewarded when the movie soon became the highest grossing movie of all time at the American box office (this record lasted only two years before being broken by Star Wars). It was also credited with markedly decreasing real-world beach attendance, and, unfortunately, with increasing shark-hunting worldwide. Peter Benchley, who wrote the original novel and the first draft of the screenplay, has since said that if he “knew what sharks were really like in the wild” (i.e. that they’re not that dangerous and important to the ecosystem), he wouldn’t have written the book in the first place. If this real-world influence seems silly, I can personally attest that I found myself snorkeling in the ocean a week or so after my most recent viewing of the movie, and had a moment where I thought, “I should not have just re-watched Jaws.” Just as there’s something about the shower scene in Psycho that fundamentally never leaves you when you take showers after that, there’s something about the ocean in Jaws that changes things.
Along with a few of the most famous lines (“We’re gonna need a bigger boat”), perhaps the best-known bit from the movie in the general popular culture today is the scary theme by John Williams. When he first played his idea for Spielberg, just two notes repeated faster and faster, the story goes that at first Spielberg thought it was a joke. But Williams was serious, and the theme is now so well known that it has become a cliché almost completely unmoored from its original source material. On this particular viewing, I found it interesting some of the other places Williams’ score goes. There are bits during the shark hunting scenes when it goes into full-on high seas adventure mode.
Jaws didn’t just launch Spielberg’s career and a thousand other blockbusters, it also launched a series of sequels of ever-decreasing quality. None of these involved Spielberg or Dreyfuss, with Scheider only appearing in Jaws 2. The third movie ended up being in 3-D after Universal rejected a bid by National Lampoon (and John Hughes) to produce a comedy version titled Jaws 3, People 0. The fourth movie in the series, Jaws: The Revenge, is sometimes cited among the worst big-budget movies ever made. This is not counting the slew of direct imitators, which are too many to include here. Piranha 3-D even included a cameo by Richard Dreyfuss in which he hums “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” the song the men sing together on the boat.
In the end, Jaws is a movie about a shark eating people, sure, but I honestly don’t think it would be possible to make a better version of that movie, from beginning to end. You can tell because so many people have tried. Perhaps because it uses its effects sparingly, every frame of it still holds up today, even whatever Robert Shaw is doing as Quint. If you haven’t seen it, you should fix that.