Jaws (1975) is about a beach being terrorized by a killer Great White Shark.
I’m going to be perfectly honest here and say that I really had to rack my brains for this post. I initially wanted to review the film as I saw it: a great, iconic thriller with solid performances and strong technical details, like the music and the mechanical shark. And then I had to go shoot myself in the foot by reading some of the critics’ reviews and realise to my surprise that Jaws was deeper than it looked; it actually had ideological references in it! I’ll be lying if I said that I actually identified the post-Watergate scandal and class differences themes going on, since I’m not the best history student ever, to put it mildly. Of course, one can be cynical and say that the critics were over-analysing but I disagree; I think these sentiments were felt very strongly during that era, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the film-makers really did intend to incorporate these broad ideas into the film. So even though the themes sort of flew past my head while I was watching the film, I must acknowledge them all the same.
Anyway, you would think that with Jaws being the pioneer of this genre, things are going to get better from 1975 onwards. And yet the shark movies seem to be becoming WORSE over the years, which is baffling especially with technological advancements and CGI. The proliferation of these crap really made me appreciate the effort that was put into making this film. I guess as many people say, substance is still worth more than style.
When I was young, Jaws was one of the source of my nightmares, along with other shark films like Deep Blue Sea. How can you expect a young kid to NOT be terrified of a shark chomping people? Of course, as I grew older and learnt about the endangerment of sharks, it kinda made me sympathise more with them and realise that they’re not all that bad. Even so, I have very fond memories of Jaws for its scariness and greatness.
The most obvious aspect of the film that is praiseworthy, even today, would be Steven Spielberg’s direction. I read that the mechanical shark malfunctioned a couple of times, which is why they chose to shoot from the shark’s “point of view” instead. This turned out to be one of the best move ever, because it added to the intensity of the film. Even though right now I already knew what was going on (aka scariness and suspense not there any more), I could still appreciate how the intensity was brilliantly built up, from the music that increases in tempo as the shark approaches its chow (floating legs as seen from below), to how you only see the aftermath of the attack, like the blood and the severed limbs. Even today, the mechanical shark is still pretty effective, such as in the underwater cage scene which is very intense. Along with Richard Dreyfuss’ underwater screams LOL. But I guess it was good they relied less on it because now I actually thought it looked a little bit fake from some angles, like when it pounced onto the boat. Anyway, I guess most people nowadays wouldn’t appreciate such disturbing subtlety which is why we have Piranha 3D, where the gore level is so damn high it becomes quite unbelievable.
In a film like this one would expect the characters to be cardboard caricatures, but interestingly enough, the three “heroes” of the film actually are pretty unique on their own. The characterization is nothing mind-blowing of course, but it’s still pretty solid. Chief Brody is the unlikely hero, who eventually overcame his dislike of the water to face the real enemy. I like how “flawed”, or rather inexperienced Brody actually was. One would expect the shark killer to be someone at home with the sea, and yet Brody in fact couldn’t steer a boat, couldn’t tie a knot and like most normal people in the situation, was afraid. On the other hand, you have Hooper, the rich, wealthy know-it-all who may have the knowledge and equipment but was lacking the hands-on experience. And lastly, you have Quint, the tough, reckless war veteran who couldn’t care less about Hooper’s knowledge and equipment, and only wanted to kill the shark for its reward. I liked how these 3 characters, with Hooper and Quint being the polar opposites of one another, were literally put together in the same boat, and how their frequent clashes with one another was depicted without being overly obvious. I even liked how they didn’t go for a “overcome differences to work towards a common goal” theme, and instead depicted how their different personalities often got into each other’s ways. Of course, one can take this a step further and talk about the clashes of class but I’m not going there.
The acting was pretty solid all around. For me, the real performance that stood out was Roy Scheider’s performance as Brody. Even though his role is the most reactive and least flashy, I took away a lot from his performance, like how “ordinary” the character is, the immense guilt he felt for letting the beach open, his fear of the shark and how he eventually turned out to be the unlikely hero in the end. Richard Dreyfuss was a bit too much for me sometimes, but he did a good job in making his character realistic and not a caricature. I just felt a bit annoyed by his mannerisms and all, but I guess that was the point since Hooper was a smart-ass. Robert Shaw’s Quint is universally loved, and he certainly was excellent in portraying the reckless and eccentric traits of his character, as well as his scarred past during the war. I’m a bit less enthusiastic about his performance though, maybe because I personally prefer the less flashy roles in general. Still, he was really great and memorable.
The only issue I had was with the Mayor Vaughn character (played by Murray Hamilton), who refused to acknowledge the existence of the shark in order to keep the beach open. I read that it was supposed to be a reference to Henry Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, the way Brody’s concern over the safety of the people clashed with Mayor Vaughn’s profit motive from keeping the beach open. Not a big issue of course, I just found it hard to believe that anyone, much less a Mayor, could be that stupid.
But really, what more can be said about Jaws? It’s iconic, suspenseful, scary and with more depth than other films of the genre, earning a very deserved reputation for being one of the greatest thrillers of all times. 4.5/5.