Jaws - Nitrate Online Store
Contents | Features | Reviews | News | Archives | Store


Review by Joe Barlow
Posted 12 November 1999


Directed by Steven Spielberg

Starring Roy Scheider, 
Richard Dreyfess, Robert Shaw, 
and Lorraine Gray

Written by Peter Benchley 
Carl Gottlieb

"You yell 'Barracuda!' and everyone says, 'Huh? What?'; You yell 'Shark!' and we've got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July."
    --Larry Vaughn, Mayor of Amity, Jaws

In 1975, a young director named Steven Spielberg single-handedly created a new movie genre--the summer blockbuster. The twenty-five year-old moviemaker's third film, Jaws, shook the industry with such force that its effects are still being felt today. It forever shattered Hollywood's belief that people don't watch movies during the summer; for this reason alone, every action extravaganza that followed it, from Star Wars to Independence Day to Spielberg's own Jurassic Park and The Lost World, owes a debt of gratitude to this tale of terror. Jaws continues to serve as a benchmark of suspense cinema, and still retains its visceral power nearly a quarter-century after its initial release.

Moonlight sparkles on the ocean. A nude swimmer plunges into the cool water, splitting the waves with a splash. She swims. She floats. She laughs.

She dies.

Martin Brody (Roy Schieder), the chief of police in the idyllic seaside town of Amity, is quick to react to the news of the shark attack. He sensibly believes the beaches should be closed until the leviathan can be vanquished. The townsfolk, however, are less certain: Amity is a summer town which depends on tourist dollars for its survival. Every day the beaches are closed, the town grows poorer; although Brody believes that safety is the more important concern, he is overruled by Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton). Soon the beaches are open once again... with disastrous results.

Brody calls for help from the Oceanographic Institute, and a young shark expert named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) is sent to assist. The duo teams up with a crusty local salt named Quint (Robert Shaw), who offers to kill the shark--for a fee, of course.

The story at the heart of Steven Spielberg's Jaws revolves not so much around the creature which has taken up residence in the waters of Amity, but around the townsfolk who are forced to deal with the consequences of its presence. It's a subtle distinction, but it makes all the difference. Jaws is not a monster flick; it's the story of three men facing a seemingly insurmountable force of nature. In keeping the emphasis on the characters rather than the shark, as the film's three wretched sequels did, Spielberg crafted a cinematic work that still fascinates and mesmerizes. Human moments dominate the tale--take a look at the oft-parodied "injury comparison" scene aboard Quint's boat, the Ocra, and tell me whether you saw anything so clever or affecting in, say, Independence Day.

But why has Jaws become a cultural icon? No one expected the phenomenal success of the film (it was the highest-grossing movie of all time until George Lucas unveiled Star Wars on an unsuspecting world two years later. Spielberg would later reclaim the title with 1983's E.T., though a certain James Cameron movie about a really big boat now holds the title), least of all Spielberg himself. Nor was any indication of Jaws' destiny evident during its calamitous shoot, which ran months behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. The mechanical shark didn't work correctly on the best of days, and didn't work at all on the worst, sometimes sinking to the bottom of the ocean in mid-shot for no discernible reason.

These problems would've destroyed any other movie; they made Jaws into a legend.

Unable to use the mechanical shark for many of his desired shots, Spielberg hit upon a new strategy: keeping the creature off screen for as much of the film as possible, thus allowing the audience's imagination to provide the visuals and heightening the suspense when the shark does appear. Spielberg teases and taunts the audience with tiny glimpses of the shark--a fin here and there--so effectively that when the Great White makes its first "real" onscreen appearance (nearly ninety minutes into the film, as Brody shovels bait into the ocean), the audience jumps as one. Hitchcock would be proud.

One of the tale's most interesting facets is the lack of a central villain; Mayor Vaughn is simply doing what he believes to be in his town's best interest. His actions are justifiable and understandable, even if the consequences are just as clearly disastrous. And though Quint comes off as eccentric and perhaps even a bit dangerous, his personality is amply developed and rounded along the way, as evidenced in Quint's mesmerizing 'Indianapolis' speech (written by Shaw himself), one of cinema's most haunting. In lesser hands, both Vaughn and Quint could have become cardboard stereotypes; under Spielberg's eye, they're as real as you or me.

No overview of Jaws would be complete without mention of John Williams' score. Williams, who would later compose the now-legendary music for Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and many other cinema milestones, hits exactly the right tone in Jaws-- themes from the music echo the themes of the film. The score stalks the listener, exploding from whisper to crescendo with no warning; in some ways, the music itself is akin to a shark attack. Spielberg himself has claimed that without Williams' elegant score, Jaws wouldn't be nearly as good. I tend to agree.

I don't like all of Spielberg's films, but I cannot begrudge him Jaws, which is still, twenty-five years later, arguably the finest thriller ever made. Everything clicks--the performances, the filmmaking technique, the music. Jaws is not merely the most significant 'monster movie' since Godzilla; it's one of American cinema's crowning achievements. May it continue scaring audiences out of the water for decades to come.

Jaws - Nitrate Online Store
Buy It!

Don't have a DVD player? 
Click on the button below to buy one:

Buy DVD Player from Amazon.COM
Buy at Amazon.com

Didn't find what you are looking for? Look in the back issues of the store or in the extensive catalog of Amazon.COM by entering your search in the text box below:

Search: Enter keywords...

Amazon.com logo

Contents | Features | Reviews | News | Archives | Store
Copyright 1999 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.




www.nitrateonline.com  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.