The Birth of the Summer Blockbuster: Reviewing Jaws

Duel, Steven Spielberg’s debut feature, carries a Hitchcockian premise and execution of a middle class man under the wrath of a relentless trucker, who intends to psychologically and physically torture him. Jaws takes on a familiar premise, but this time with a shark instead of a truck, and instead of the road, it is the open water; a far more unfamiliar and frightening territory. The film marks as an upgrade that expands upon the elements that were barely addressed in his first film; characters are now given more opportunities to be fleshed out and the world and its victims have now expanded.

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It seems after the critical and general reception of his two previous films, it seems he has grown from them, finding a better tune of what this film and his future releases would evoke; it was in Jaws that he finally found the Spielberg-ian magic that makes him the legend that he is today, and to some people considered as a blockbuster auteur. Jaws is a film that manages to be entertaining from start to end, providing a sense of accessibility in the way its elements are being depicted. Each moment, much like Hitchcock, aims to pluck a string within us that evokes a particular emotion, and unlike most filmmakers, it all becomes rewarding by its conclusion since everything we accumulate remains relevant in understanding and appreciating the film.

The premise is quite simple, and due to pop-culture and its direct marketing, there isn’t much of Jaws that we haven’t heard or seen before. Amity is the setting, an island that is famous for its beach-side tourist attractions; many come to the island for their summer vacations. Its guardian is a newly appointed Chief of Police, Brody (Roy Scheider); born and raised in New York, once a watcher and protector of the metropolitan streets, only to find himself frustrated by the crime and lack of impact he feels as an officer, finding solace in the quiet simplicity of Amity Island, where the worst offence are children ‘karate-ing’ the picket fences.

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A threat looms over its town, a shark has arrived upon their waters, and since then three lives have been taken; initially Brody feels the beaches should be closed to ensure the safety of its locals, only for tis unpopular decision to be overruled by the public and its appointed mayor. Mayor explains to Brody earlier in the film as it is his first summer here in Amity, that the town thrives in the summer season and that to enforce restriction against the beaches would lose profit; though seemingly heartless and greedy, we are convinced later on of the sincerity of his actions.

The bounty placed on the shark has caused stir within the simple town, many claiming they are up to the task; but one truly stand out, a seemingly isolated veteran, Quint (Robert Shaw), who demands more than the town could bargain, $10 000 dollars for the whole damn thing. Another man enters the scene, a young and wealthy Marine Biologist by the name of Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss); his presence allowed the confirmation of the monstrosity that the town is dealing with, a great white shark as wide as 20-25 feet. Its final hour finds the three central characters, Hooper, Brody, and Quint, in an adventure that aims to eliminate the shark, hoping to stop the potentially endless terror that this shark evokes in his presence. It is feared from an economic standpoint that Amity would crumble under its own fear as long as this creature remains in their greatest commodity.

It was in the final hour that the film truly shines; where terror becomes at its most heightened, where claustrophobia enters into these three individuals as their agenda turns on itself and the shark proving to be a too keen and intelligent monster to easily eliminate. Spielberg maintains a strong sense of tension due to his ability to withhold the primary subject, initially only seen through obscure imagery that never truly capture the scope of threat that the creature offers; it is at the final act that it finally gains the chance to reveal its pure terror on its prey, constantly catching its prey and the film’s audience by surprise in its tactics. Much like in Duel, the shark itself becomes elevated in its lack of exposure, becoming symbolic in its evil and charged further when its reveal shines focus on the creature pitch black eyes; almost as if it lacks any soul, at least one worth of redemption.

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In modern cinema, whenever I hear a one-liner play out with such emphasis, it tends to ruin the character and the tone that the film is trying to capture; but Jaws was one of the rare few that is able to find such fun and power with each iconic line, whether it may be “You’re Going To Need a Bigger Boat” or the simple “A What?!”, it remains with you long after the viewing; sometimes I say these quotes just to amuse myself, that is how effective they are. The dialogue, along with the subtle action, is also the gateway to its characters as much of the film is tightly focused on progressing its plot that to dedicate an entire scene for character development would severely affect the film’s pacing; thus the tiny moments that I seem to pick up with each viewing; the reveal of Brody’s gunshot wound during the scene where the trio share stories; Brody’s sense of fear for himself and his children, and the connection it carries with his past life as a New York officer; the jabs that Hooper and Quint throw at one another, rooted by their discomfort of each other’s social class and the dislike of one another’s polarising personalities. The film manages to capture depth in between the cracks that we constantly walk over since we find ourselves so invested by its premise and atmosphere; it is now that I have been exposed to these little details that I have begun to further appreciate the effort that Spielberg has provided with this film.

The score composed by John Williams remains as iconic as ever, with its now overly used theme and a wondrous sense of adventure that it evokes in its third act that draws me completely into the world Amity and close to the fears of its victims. There was a time where I slightly resented the score that Williams provided for this film, particularly due to its seemingly optimistic attitude during moments of adventure that opens the film’s atmosphere far too much, no longer maintaining that sense of claustrophobia that a horror film should; but then I loosened my grips towards it and found it to be much more rewarding this time, connecting with the multiple approaches that Jaws intends to capture; a sweeping adventure, a claustrophobic horror, and a subtle cohesion of friendship. Even at the score’s most optimistic of moments, I found the lingering horror that shakes underneath, this whole time I assumed that Williams has completely abandoned its preceding build-up in favouring for immediate and temporary effect over his audience.

Jaws may not be the most ideal platform for an actor’s paramount performance, but somehow that was the case for its three leading men; Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider, and Robert Shaw; with the latter being the standout. They were able to carry their distinct personalities that allow moments of friction and harmony seem genuine, allowing the film’s final hour to be the glorious ride that it truly is. If these actors fail in captivating their audience then sitting through its final hour would be tiresome chore, as the camera remains on them purposely. Dreyfuss brings a scientific and playful attitude to Hooper that clash with Shaw’s instinctual and stern personality for Quint; with Scheider playing as a mediator between the two, and carries a more vulnerable persona that he constantly battles as he is out there in the isolating ocean with a small and cramped boat. These characters may not be demanding and satisfying for a serious actor, but they are without a doubt iconic and interesting, and that couldn’t be achieved without the commitment and fun that these actors bring to their roles.

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Jaws marks as Spielberg’s first masterpiece and the pioneer of the concept of summer blockbusters, one that has captivated a large range of audiences, radiating a similar fear-inducing and light hearted impact that has fractured the masses of their perspectives towards the water, and has shaped the idea of what enthralling cinema should idolise themselves to be. This film marks as an almost pinnacle triumph in the director’s body of work, bested only by his upcoming film.

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