Jaws takes place on Amity Island on a busy 4th of July weekend. As you may have guessed, the island is filled with tourists just waiting to end up as shark snack. The first scene conditions you for the thrills to come by mentioning the presence of a gigantic, man-eating shark just hanging around the coast. It makes your heart race even faster by showing a hapless girl going for an evening swim and getting dragged down to the depths to her death. This film is a thrill to watch despite its age, and that is saying a lot for a movie more than three decades old.
As with any film in the genre, there’s always a character who facilitates the thrills by making all the wrong choices. For Jaws, that’s Mayor Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) who refuses to close the beach despite all evidence pointing to a hungry shark in the territory. He is stubborn, refusing to lose what revenue the big week will bring and orders police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) to keep mum about the situation. He explains that people who don’t swim on his resort will head to the Hamptons or Cape Cod to get their fix. Despite Brody’s protests, the mayor makes an appearance on the beach to encourage people to enjoy and take the plunge. Needless to say, they do, leading to a very well fed predator.
The characters are distinct, with a sort of whimsy common in classic films. There’s the stubborn mayor and Brody the police chief who means well but gets bullied into accepting the former’s impractical, sometimes comic, decisions. There’s Quint (Robert Shaw), a rugged, narrow eyed bounty hunter who offers to kill the shark for a fee. Last but not the least is Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), who adds some dramatic flair with his expertise as an oceanographer. Ignoring Brody’s warnings about the killer lurking within the ocean, the mayor refuses to close the beach. Eventually, word gets out, complete with a $3,000 bounty to be given to the lucky guy who manages to kill the shark. With a sizeable amount of money on the line, bounty hunters line up to try and kill the predator, predictably ending up as victims themselves.
Elusive Main Draw
Speaking of which, the star of the show barely makes an appearance on screen. Most of the scenes involving the great hunter depicts its actions rather than the actual shark. The rest is filled up by some masterful storytelling. While young movie goers may be used to full on CG treatment, Jaws exemplifies the notion that good filmmaking need not be in your face all the time. Spielberg’s technique is elegant, with evident influences from the master of suspense — Alfred Hitchcock. You know that the shark is there, waiting to spring on unsuspecting vacation goers. You know that people will find trouble, no matter what and yet you have no idea when the next scare will happen. That’s more than enough to conjure all sorts of scares, especially with an overactive imagination.
The pacing is genius too. By the first half hour, the mere mention of the shark will be enough to keep you at the edge of your seat. The characters mention the Great White often too, punctuated by gruesome photos of those that fall victim to the massive predator. The protagonists also voice their own fears; this not only gives emphasis to the fearsome hunter but also adds to its character development.
A variety of tricks are used to suggest the presence of the shark. There are floating objects such as kegs, even half a pier pried loose and dragged out to the water. For the most part, the shark remains invisible, yet you will barely notice. The hype and premise are delivered in such a way that it’ll be hard to imagine things going any other way.
Take a Bite From It
The bottom line is that Jaws remains to be a shining example of the power of great filmmaking and is responsible for much of the good and bad press sharks including the great white receive today, just take a look at all the shark news here or the many jaws inspired games here. Although it had restraints in terms of CG gimmicks and flashy effects found in modern-day high budget films, it still manages to ignite the imagination and keep you at the edge of your seat. It’s a classic for a reason and it will likely forever be a favorite for both Spielberg diehards and fans of the genre.