Released: June 20th, 1975
Intro: The original JAWS movie is arguably one of the most iconic films out there and has impacted cinema ever since it came out. It was directed by a young Steven Spielberg, who went on to make more masterpieces like Jurassic Park and The Lost World. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, and set the stage for the summer blockbuster trend.
Story: At its core, JAWS is about a police chief dead set on proving there is a shark killing beach goers and that it needs to be destroyed. There’s more to it of course, mainly the fact that the business owners and government of the island refuse to believe the shark is a threat even after a little boy is murdered right in front of them. Chief Brody spends the first half of the film dealing with this hurdle before spending the second half actually hunting the beast and finally killing it. The story is simple, but also incredibly frustrating in that you just want to smack the residents of Amity Island, the beach town our story is set in, who refuse to see common sense and admit they need to take drastic action to put an end to the killings. Even Chief Brody has to deal with taking responsibility for the beaches being open which allows a little boy to be killed, when in reality he was fighting for them to be closed.
The story of JAWS was stripped down immensely from the novel – removing the mafia connection with the local government, the affair between Ellen Brody and Matt Hooper, and condensing down the hunt for the shark. This was a wise decision in my opinion because the movie already has a long running time at just over two hours, and any additional side plots would have dragged it down. Leaving those plotlines in would not have benefitted the film in any way and actually leaves the focus more on Brody vs the shark, as opposed to Brody dealing with his interactions with everyone else. The book focused less on the shark, but being a thriller, the movie spends most of the time centered around the finned fury.
There are all kinds of stories about how the mechanical shark broke during filming, which is why there is so little footage of the fish, but it actually ended up working in their favor. We get several first person view moments where we see things from the shark’s point of view, aiming up at splashing legs and leaving us to wonder just which one he is about to chomp into. By the time we do see the shark itself, we already have a great sense of what he can do and just how dangerous he is. Sometimes less is more, and in this case it works well.
Another iconic set in the film is when Brody, Hooper and Quint are hunting the shark. We see the three men bond despite their differing personalities, and our hero, Chief Brody, gets to land the killing blow. Every time they encounter the shark while they are on the boat is an intense moment as he seems to damage the boat more and more until he sinks it, determined to eat his hunters. All in all, the story flows smoothly and despite its lengthy running time, the pacing is fair. I have watched this movie so many times and it never feels like a drag.
Characters: JAWS has a wonderful mix of characters, Chief Brody being our hero. He is truly a dedicated man who loves his family and his town, wanting only to protect them all from this watery menace. Portrayed by the late Roy Scheider, the new chief is believable as someone who is at first naïve to the importance of summer tourism but quickly realizes that the threat of a killer shark is far more important than the temporary economic decline due to closed beaches. You never doubt his motives of saving human lives and you can easily pick up his growing frustration as time after time his warnings are ignored and rebuffed. It is not until his own son is attacked that he finally snaps and forces the mayor to sign the papers to hire a hunter. Determined to bring down the animal himself, he insists on joining the fight and in an epic scene where he utters “Smile, you son of a---” he lands the killing shot and the shark explodes. Brody’s cheers of excitement and accomplishment sound completely genuine. I can’t picture anyone else pulling off Martin Brody as a believable and likable family man determined to keep everyone safe as well as Roy Scheider did. To me, Roy IS Brody.
Robert Shaw plays Sam Quint, the local fisherman hired to hunt down and kill the shark. He’s brash, overconfident, arrogant and cocky, but Shaw plays him in such a way he is actually likable. He brings just a little bit of humor with his witty remarks and mischievous laughter. He has a sense of respect for the chief to an extent, but he very obviously is annoyed with Matt Hooper, a frenemyship which he and Richard Dreyfuss pull off well. His introduction in the town hall meeting where he scratches the chalkboard is an interesting way to bring attention to him, because his personality can be just that to some people – nails on a chalkboard. There is a moment of vulnerability near the end when he and Brody and Hooper are drinking and sharing stories and he shares his memories of surviving the USS Indianapolis, showing that he is more than just an overzealous jerk and that there is a man suffering with pain under that exterior. I was upset when Quint met his and at the shark’s mighty JAWS, but it was almost poetic since he had turned the shark almost into a personal enemy.
Richard Dreyfuss is the oceanographer Matt Hooper. Hooper is a light of hope for Brody at first as he comes in with a ton of knowledge and confidence, and while he is backing up Brody 100%, he doesn’t offer much for realistic solutions until Quint is brought into the picture. One of my favorite scenes with him is when he shows Quint, he is more than an educated kid when he effortlessly ties a rope in a special knot. The verbal sparring between the two men is fun to watch and comes to its greatest moment when, behind Quint’s back, Hooper makes childish faces and sticks out his tongue. He shows signs of bravery when he agrees to go into the water inside of a shark cage, where he seems to be quickly dispatched. He does survive, but only after Brody has made the killing shot. Hooper is likable enough of a guy but doesn’t have the determination and gumption of Brody or the skill and nerve of Quint.
There is a lovable cast of supporting characters in Martin Brody’s family – his wife Ellen and kids Mike and Sean. They all support him even though the kids are more carefree and his wife more concerned over the issue at hand.
The townspeople are a little less likable, with a mayor who doesn’t see there is a real problem and instead focuses on economics. As a viewer you want to scream at him that Amity will have much bigger problems if people keep dying. Most of the other local businessowners are equally as shortsighted, complaining that a single day without business is like three weeks. The town hall meeting comes off as a bunch of children whining because they don’t want to go to bed. Only Quint has the sense to lay it out for everyone – either pony up the dough to solve the problem or let the shark attacks chase people away and destroy the economy, forcing everyone into welfare. While I like the apparent stupidity of the townspeople for the ‘us vs them’ scenario, realistically I would hope people would see the bigger picture and make concessions to deal with the problem.
Overall, the characters do what they need to do, and the major players are engaging and fun to watch interact on screen as they scramble to find a way to save the day before anyone else gets eaten up. Other than the Brody family, none of the other background characters get much development but really they don’t need it for this film.
Visuals: JAWS is known for having one of the most uncooperative mechanical creatures to grace the screen, so much so that it is a running gag ‘is the shark still working?’. The thing is, however that this testy shark model helped JAWS to have some very intense moments of terror without ever seeing the shark. Sometimes less is more and we do not see the actual beast itself until halfway through the movie. The anticipation keeps you going, so when you finally see it, you are truly wowed. Let’s be honest though, in all four movies the shark looks fake. Compared to today’s effects it stands no chance but even back then it had a very unreal look, with obvious rubbery teeth and painted skin. The sheer size is part of what keeps it scary, and the fact that when we do see it, it is almost always eating someone. Still, we know it’s fake, but to me that is part of the charm of this film. It isn’t so much scary as it is thrilling, the sudden splashing, the sudden burst from the water and sprays of blood, screams and flailing limbs. The single fin slicing apart the water as the shark hunts is one of the best effects, bringing you to the edge of your seat as you wonder just who the next victim will be.
As far as other visuals go, the island of Amity feels like the perfect setting for a summer town. Choosing Martha’s Vineyard was a wise choice. The buildings have an older look with charm and life. The beaches are heavily populated when we see them. And of course we have the Orca, Quint’s fishing boat. Almost a character itself, the boat plays a vital role in the last portion of the film, taking on more and more damage as the hunt goes on. It looks great onscreen and the open ocean behind it gives you a real sense of isolation and danger.
If I had to choose one nitpick about the movie, it would be the costume designer putting Mayor Vaughan in suits covered in anchors. It looks so incredibly tacky and laughable that a grown man, let alone a mayor, would wear something so childish. Of course it does help cement the fact that he really is a just a showman with no real concept of the big picture.
Sound: The score for JAWS is perfect for the film. It has tension where it needs it, and it has excitement as well. Each track is just the right fit for the scene it is played in. Sound effects are not often needed, but what is required is there and sounds great. Thankfully they did not start this franchise off with the stupid roar they finished it up with in The Revenge, and instead kept the shark as a silent hunter.
Overall: JAWS is by far one of the best shark movies ever made, relying more on tension and heart than flashy CGI (granted CGI wasn’t even an option back then) and over the top acting. The characters are great and memorable and the plot isn’t overly complex. I wouldn’t classify it as horror, but more of a thriller as you are constantly wondering just what is going to happen with the shark next. It’s also a fair reminder that we really are at the mercy of nature, especially vicious animals that answer to no one but themselves. This is one classic I hope they never remake or reboot.