Jaws: The prototypical modern monster movie

Jaws is the definitive monster movie of the modern era. While there were all manner of science fiction creature features before it, Jaws did what films about vampires, werewolves and other supernatural spawn couldn’t: it made millions afraid of the water.

It was the first modern blockbuster, and established a pattern for releasing summer movies that Hollywood held to for decades. For geeks, it did something more important: it established the rules of the genre.

Like Halloween and Friday the 13th did for flasher films, Jaws establishes the formula for a successful creature feature:

Rule #1: Don’t show the monster: One of the things that makes Jaws so terrifying, and what makes the tension so intense, is that you don’t see the shark for 2/3rds of the movie. You see it’s wake, you see the surface attacks, but it’s not until the third act that we really see the monster.

Rule #2: Listen to the scientist: Every creature feature needs a scientist — or the equivalent there of — to explain the creature and come up with theories on how to fight it. In Jaws, it’s shark expert Matt Hooper. He works brilliantly, describing the beast that we can’t see, providing well done touches of humor, and giving us a geeky protagonist. Over time, the scientist character became expendable, living just long enough to explain what happened. That would have been the case with Jaws as well, but the footage they shot of a real shark attacking an empty anti-shark cage led the film crew to come up with a reason why Hooper wasn’t in it when it was attacked. (source: Wikipedia)

Rules #3: Give us a protagonist who kicks ass: It’s not all about the monster: you need people to care about or the rampage ends up being little more than blood and gore. Jaws gives us three: down-to-earth Sheriff Brody, nerdy scientist Matt Hooper and grim (and more than a little crazy) shark-hunter Quint.

These core principles show up in every film that’s I’m reviewing as part of Monster Week, and as a result there’s no way that I could kick off this creature feature with anything other than Jaws

Scary from the opening credits

As the opening credits roll on Jaws, the thing that struck me first was John Williams soundtrack. The slow dun-dun, dun-dun accelerating as the black background gives way to the ocean bottom, suddenly surging in a crescendo that suddenly ends to reveal college kids drinking on the beach.

It’s iconic, and in those few short notes you’re filled with an entire movie’s worth of dread. No, that’s not right. A lifetime’s worth of dread, because once you’ve seen Jaws, you can’t ever look at the ocean the same way again. Hearing those notes brings back every trip to the beach you’ve ever made … and every moment you ever hesitated to go into the water because there might be a shark lurking with in.

I expect that those who haven’t seen the movie at this late date might find the opening credits to be cliched. The theme has completely permeated American popular culture, leaving few who haven’t heard it. But that dismissive attitude wouldn’t last past the opening credits, when a young woman named Chrissie enters the water off of Amity Island and dies a horrible death in the jaws of the shark. This initial attack is vintage Steven Spielberg (and, it has to be said, Hitchcock as well) — Chrissie enters the water, young and mostly naked, and quickly begins swimming. Moments pass … and then there’s the first hit. She jerks in a surprise, and then the shark hits again and the screaming begins. She grasps desperately at a navigation buoy, only to be taken under once again. The low ringing of the buoy’s bell is all that marks her passing.

It’s a chilling scene, and as effective in 2010 as it was the first time I saw it in the 1980s (I was only four when the movie was in theaters).

From there we’re rapidly introduced to our cast of characters: Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a New York City transplant who gave up the Big Apple’s crime-ridden streets for a place that hasn’t seen a murder in decades. He’s soon compelled to choose between doing the right thing — closing the beaches and notifying people about the shark — and the wrong-but-understandable thing: keeping the beaches open to ensure the island’s summer vacation dollars don’t go away.

As he battles pressure from the town’s mayor and businesspeople to keep the beaches open, we get our first glimpse of Quint (Robert Shaw), the cantankerous shark hunter who offers to solve the town’s problems by killing the beast. They turn him down, unwilling to pay his high price (at least, not before the body count adds up).

And then finally there’s researcher Matt Hooper (Richard Dryfuss), the shark geek whose warnings are ignored, but who refuses to give up.

Vintage, not dated

The movie is vintage 70s, but it’s aged well. A big part of that is New England itself — it doesn’t change much, particularly in the small towns. But it’s also the movie itself — Speilberg captures a slice of 1970s small town life, and all of its tropes, from raising kids to self-serving politicians to angry business owners too scared to do the right thing, still ring true.

For example, there’s a scene about midway through the movie where Brody is sitting at the dining room table. A tiger shark has been caught by adventurous fishermen, but he knows in his heart that it’s not the. His youngest son, who must be three or four, sits at the table with him, and mimics his behavior: a sip of wine, the frustrated massaging of his face with his fingers. When Brody notices, he asks for a kiss … because he needs it.

That scene’s the heart and soul of this movie, and as a dad of a four-year-old boy myself, I found I related to it even more strongly than I did during earlier viewings.

The movie’s also expertly paced with three distinct acts — the initial killings and subsequent investigation, the mounting horror as the island is in denial, and finally the big hunt. The pacing is spot on, with just the right touches of humanity (such as the aforementioned scene with Brody’s son, or the drunken scar comparison aboard the shark-hunting ship Orca in the final third of the movie) to break up the tension of the shark attacks.

The only part of the movie that really doesn’t hold up is the very end. Thanks to the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week we know exactly what a shark looks like. Spielberg’s mechanical monstrosity was amazing back in the day, but it looks fake today. Moreover, Mythbusters has thoroughly debunked many aspects of the film, including how pressurized oxygen tanks explode and how fast the shark was moving. Combined, they make it increasingly difficult to suspend your disbelieve.

And yet … the first encounters with the shark out in the deep water still ring true. It looks menacing as it rises from the water to scare the hell out of Brody as he shovels bloody chum overboard, giving rise to the movie’s best line: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” And while the shark is able to move unbelievably fast, and is impossibly strong, that’s ultimately part of the attraction. This is a creature feature pitting man against beast … it needs to be larger than life.

Final Analysis

Thirty-five years after it was release, Jaws remains the definitive monster movie.

Product Details

  • Jaws
  • Starring: Roy Scheider, Richard Dryfuss, Robert Shaw
  • Director: Steven Spielberg
  • Running time: 124 min
  • Rating: PG
  • Buy it from Amazon.com
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