When we talk about films that sculpted the face of modern cinema, two names cannot be missed – that of director Steven Spielberg and the title that gave the initial impetus to his cult career – “Jaws” (1975).
This film is a turning point for the industry, starting with the chosen release date that forever redefined the cinema calendar, going through the iconic music and arriving at the universal and timeless theme – about the human fear of the unknown.
In other words, if you remember “Jaws” only for the tense “doom, doom, doom” and shark fin, you should watch the movie again and delve into the more complex layers of its motives. Because it is very easy to repeat mechanically that one or another film is an emblem, it is more difficult to point out the ideas that put a given tape outside of time and space.
So what did Jaws give to the cinema to deserve all the glory, and is its removal from the mothballs some kind of hipster fad subservient to a gullible reverence for the retro?
There are dozens of titles these days that rely on nostalgia to remind themselves of themselves, but “Jaws” is not among them, because neither the set, nor the camera quality, nor the effects offer something that modern audiences will peck at.
Refracted through the prism of 2022, Spielberg’s horror could easily pass for the family film column, as the danger is not 3D enough. Especially viewed on an IMAX screen, which brings out all the props of the monster in the ocean that eats human food three times a day.*
In this line of thought, Spielberg’s shark is more of a metaphor for unleashing irrational human panic at what we can’t see and control than a monster that will haunt you in your nightmares.
Spielberg is a big fan of this theme (“Alien”, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”), having learned to toss a tightrope between the sentimental and the scary (illogical) side of the plot so that he walks masterfully along it. “Jaws” works according to the same formula.
The story begins in the American resort town of Amity, which is preparing to welcome the 4th of July with full beaches, fireworks, restaurants bursting at the seams. Summer is in full swing, worries have been left at the office, and laziness is the national sport of the season.
No one sees cause for alarm until it becomes clear that there is a killer shark prowling the coasts that comes out of nowhere and slices up an entire human body in seconds.
This presents the community with a serious dilemma – whether to empty the beaches, thereby sacrificing the season and possibly sending the business to welfare, or to save their lives. The choice is not easy, and since a final decision is never reached, a sacrificial lamb is found in the form of a sheriff, an ichthyologist and an old sea wolf who are hired to enter the ocean and kill the shark.
Modern feminists will now ask “Where is the woman in the group?” and they would immediately attack the patriarchal standards that have obliged the heroines in the film to stand by their children while the men win back their right to a peaceful summer vacation.
Fortunately for Spielberg and the entire Jaws team, gender standards didn’t exist in the 1970s, and that only helped. The film places at the center of events three characters who have the motivation and qualities to be there.
Sheriff Brody (Roy Scheider) is the prototypical family guy who cares for others not just because he’s paid, but out of a sense of duty. When something in his police chief’s jurisdiction goes wrong, he takes it extremely personally and is ready to chop it up.
Ichthyologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is the mad scientist whose curiosity will either kill him or make him a celebrity. The last of the group, the experienced hunter Quinn (Robert Shaw), has old scores to settle with the sea.
As this is one of Spielberg’s first films and was shot on the ARRIFLEX 35 III, which is ancient by today’s standards, it is interesting to see how the director handled the shot and angle to create tension.
When he wants to create a claustrophobic feeling, the director narrows the shot to the character’s field of vision, and when he returns to his basic theme – that danger is out there, but no one knows exactly where, he uses wide shots.
Without the possibilities of computer effects, a tool in the hands of the director is also the music of John Williams, the man who composed the soundtrack of all the sharks in the world. Invoking horror with sound is a method invented by Alfred Hitchcock, and Spielberg weaves it into the figure of the shark to make it more than just a big fish that wants to eat you.
It has been 47 years since the premiere of “Jaws”, and since then our perceptions of the ocean and the horrors that lie within it have seriously changed. We’ve seen all kinds of creatures that can swallow us from the depths, and if he was just going for the visual scare effect, Spielberg’s film would have been long forgotten in the archives.
However, “Jaws” touches on something deeper. It reaches into the collective human psyche and realizes its darkest scenarios, which is a timeless theme and makes the film itself timeless.
Nothing that the beast is not “drawn” to the last detail by dozens of computer artists. And maybe that’s exactly why.
“Jaws” returns to the big screen on September 2.