The modern day creature feature genre of film can largely be attributed to this particular one. Not only did it give rise to one of the most iconic characters in film, among other iconic moments, but it set a very specific standard. This standard is seldom even close to having been reached, but it shows just how much fun can be had when making a normal animal a kind of villain in the story.
The Universal Pictures film “Jaws”, based on the novel of the same name by Peter Benchley, is an exciting creature feature, but unfortunately age and too many viewings seems to have diminished some of its effectiveness. It’s more just the cost of creating such a memorable and crowd pleasing film, but it still sucks none the less. While it seems that there shouldn’t be that much that makes it worth repeated viewings, particularly after growing up with it, there is. So much so, that even though I own this film, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to watch it on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). While it felt different to watch on this network, it was just as fun and exciting as the previous times, even if I couldn’t respond to the aspects that make this such a memorable thriller.
A little shark named Bruce caused so much havoc and no doubt scared countless people into avoiding going in the ocean. I can say, with some certainty, that he may have a slight something to do with why I won’t go into the ocean. After that it’s probably just because of other shark films that unnerved me (ahem, “Open Water”) and the fact that every other week there seems to be some new terrifying shark attack reported in the news. If this film could work on me on this level, especially as a kid, I can only imagine how effective it was in 1975.
What makes Bruce so great and still somewhat scary, even at about 42 years of age, is the fact that he looks so real. Well, real enough. The design is impeccable! When watching this film I couldn’t help but stare and try and take in all the details I could. There’s something absolutely fascinating about this character. Yes, in so many ways, he’s supposed to be frightening and semi-villainous, but he’s not. Not really. He’s just this cunning, deadly and hungry creature that everyone rightly fears. Because of this design work, you get one of the most menacing and iconic sharks in film history.
However, as it continues to age, one must admit its limitations. Not all scenes that Bruce shows up in are great when thinking about execution. However, it’s the mid-70s and prior to this, most of the effects for various creatures or aliens or whatever else was being made in the decades before, were far worse. Have you seen the original “Mighty Joe Young”? While computer animation wasn’t a thing (or true thing?) at this time, practical effects were all the rage. Part of this is probably because it was the only way to get a film with some monster made. Just look at “Star Wars” and “Alien” if you need an example. While these two came a few years later, and new technology was being tried out, there was still a lot of practical effects. For that alone, this film not only stands on its own, but can age pretty well, all things considered. I say this now knowing full well that in a few years this film will be turning 50, and technology will again change or have advanced. It’ll have done so, so much so that I’ll probably have to revisit this particular belief.
Other than bringing a sense of realism and danger, Bruce’s creation brings with it something much more important. The ability to build fear and suspense. I may not personally be able to feel these effects any longer, which is one of the biggest downsides to this film’s age, I can appreciate what was done. I’m certain that because of this overall approach, I was once made afraid. I could even jump at the reveal that there’s a dead body in the destroyed boat. Even now, there’s something brilliant about this approach. You know it’s a shark, but you don’t know what he looks like and thus can’t fully grasp how deadly he is. It’s also just refreshing as so many creature features go straight for the reveal. Forget the suspense or fear, just show what the dangerous animal looks like and hope it scares people! If this film can teach anyone anything, it’s that less is more and a slow reveal is always the best approach. Okay, that could just be me, but the thriller and horror films I’ve seen with this approach have all proven effective.
While this film will forever be known for the suspense and thriller aspects, along with the now classic score by John Williams, among other things, it’s important to remember a few other elements that make this film fun time and again. The characters and all that they go through, which informs you of the type of film you’re watching with each passing minute.
While this film has all the makings of a thriller, it’s not just that. It’s a mystery and an adventure film! But to get to those elements, first you have to meet the characters and largely just like them because they’re better than all the rest.
With Roy Scheider’s character, it’s not that hard. He’s got a family and he’s the sheriff. As the writers aren’t stupid, they made sure to provide enough insight into how he interacts with his family and loves them, but also how he approaches his duties while on the job. With both of these, you get something to go awe at and admire, but also have the capacity to move beyond just liking him.
Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss on the other hand, you just have to like their general nature and level of intelligence. They, as happens to some characters in films, are there purely for the purpose of servicing the plot. While that could typically be a bad thing, I’m thinking it never was. They, like with Scheider, are far smarter than the majority of the townspeople, but that’s sadly just because they choose to use their brains and logic. Regardless, you get some amazing moments with these two men, individually and together, which help to create such kick ass and memorable characters.
Because of Scheider, Shaw and Dreyfuss, this film is also able to shift after a little over an hour and become an adventure film. I don’t think I’d realized this originally, but upon seeing this film again and hearing the drastic change to Williams score, that’s all I could think about. There they are on a speeding boat and some of the most uptempo music is accompanying them! FUN! And when these three aren’t speeding by trying to track Bruce, they’re hanging out. While I do love the male bonding we get in this film, I’m oddly baffled by it. I see how it works, which is obviously why I like it so much, but I still feel unsure of something. It’s not out of place and just works well in this film. It comes out of nowhere, and probably could’ve been cut, but, of course, we’d have a different film. However, I feel that without this, not only would we have a different film, but all the emotions audiences do have would be completely different. The characters wouldn’t be as alive as they are. I wouldn’t be able to feel what I feel, which arguably isn’t that sad or even close to choked up, when Shaw finally becomes Bruce’s last meal.
But because these characters do stand out, I can go along with each genre change this film makes. The mystery is strong. Fear of the unknown is rising. And the thrill of the chase is what lures you to the final moment of the film. Building characters and a cast with great chemistry, never seemed so easy. It’s no wonder other films with creatures terrorizing people or towns can’t reach the levels this film still maintains. While the other attempts, be they big budget or horrible low budget films, may still be fun in some small way, but this film will always be on top.
Villains Come In All Shapes And Sizes
While Bruce may seem like a villain, even after this viewing, I don’t view him as such. He’s just an animal doing what animals that eat meat do best, especially when the prey they seek flails around a lot which ultimately draws attention to its existence. No, the villain title really goes to one group of people. The majority of the business owners on Amity Island who are being led down a dangerous road by their idiotic mayor.
While I do find it somewhat difficult to separate my own discovery of this, particularly after having forgotten this aspect of the story, from that of what was pointed out in the “Honest Trailer – Jaws”, it’s not just because the writers and other various creators at Screen Junkies said so. They actually just found a way to make it stick in your head a lot longer. Damn those funny writers! It’s simply because it’s so evident and there’s really no other way to look at it. Yes, you can understand where the mayor and townspeople are coming from, but at the same time, it’s difficult not to think them incredibly stupid. They’re a bunch of idiots. How can you think only of profits? You’d think that the idea of a decline in tourism would be just as important as it connects to a loss of revenue?
When it comes to that question and the motivations behind these people’s actions and overall behavior, what amazes me more is how I responded. First, I simply responded, which you’d think wouldn’t be possible after so many years. However, again, I’d forgotten. Prior to even this viewing, I’d only seen the film two other times. Before that, there was a huge gap and I can’t even begin to think of how long it was. So, I responded, in probably the same way everyone who sees this film does. I was angry. Baffled. Annoyed. All I wanted to do was smack each one of them in the face or get into it with them, complete with a lot more shouting than either Scheider or Dreyfuss did. I wasn’t ready to let the matter drop simply because the mayor said so and only thought of the town’s economic loss if the beaches were closed. It certainly would’ve saved Scheider from having to unfairly be blamed by the dead boy’s mother and slapped in public. He could’ve tried harder, but apparently, in order to create drama, which was well done, mind you, logic and taking a stand against your boss isn’t something that could be had.
And so, people died. They died for no reason. While these events gave you a lot to think about and respond to, on top of the mystery, suspense and fear building, plus the adventure and male bonding had, viewers got, and will probably always get, a creature feature that delivers in enough ways. I might not be able to feel the full effect of the suspense or single good jump scare, but I will always appreciate it. Even without a response, there’s still something about these moments that’s enjoyable. It could very well be that by these points, I’m fully into this film and the only way to get me out, is to make poor Bruce go boom!
Originally Released: June 20, 1975
Director: Steven Spielberg
Writers: Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb
Starring: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, Jeffrey Kramer and Susan Backlinie