Does the perfect film exist? Put simply, no. There are no perfect films as, no matter how highly a film is rated on rotten tomatoes or you as an individual viewer may enjoy a movie, there will always be a difference of opinion. Sometimes a fan is blinded by nostalgic love of a film from their childhood (The Goonies for example) while some people will admit a film has its faults but will still profess an undying love. Occasionally a film will make millions at the box office despite poor reviews as it provides a couple of hours of brainless entertainment or the anticipation has created a wealth of awaiting fans, such as I or Batman V. Superman.
There will always be somebody who will find fault in your personal favourites, whether they can justify it or not. An irrational dislike of an actor, a plot hole they can’t let go or maybe the movie is from a genre they detest even though they can see certain merits with the effects or directing. Some movies, despite their faults, are as close to perfect as they can be; these films, despite having some critics, will have created a perfect harmony of acting, directing, music and more to create something that can be argued to be near-perfect. Jaws is one such film.
Released in the summer of 1975, Jaws was the film that began the trend of blockbuster movies which has continued and evolved to this day, setting the path that Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Avatar and dozens of comic book adaptations have followed. Blockbuster status has become the aim for films these days, particularly as budgets have escalated and the need for profit is one of the driving factors in the business. Jaws was the film that established the benefits of multi-theatre release supported by marketing, as opposed to the traditional release which would see a movie slowly enter new markets and build on its viewership as word of mouth spread. The idea of a film slowly entering the market has almost disappeared these days as movie studios often release movies internationally on the same day or within a few weeks, capitalizing on marketing and anticipation. This change would never have worked if Jaws had been a poorly constructed mess however the sheer quality of the film shines through to this day.
Jaws finds a small community dependent on its summer tourism trade plagued by a killer Great White Shark, a shark which seems to target humans and threatens the local economy as well as the safety of residents and visitors. The new Sheriff battles the local residents and even the shark itself as he attempts to keep the people safe in one of Steven Spielberg’s earliest efforts.
The plot sounds like something from a low-budget B-movie however the simple premise is executed wonderfully by Spielberg in one of his best examples of film-making. Its success led to a reduction of beach attendance in the year it came out and wildlife conservationists had stated that the image of sharks represented in the movie has eternally damaged their reputation, making it harder for the public to be convinced that sharks need protecting. The success of the film and the way it entered the public consciousness is such that Ridley Scott’s 1979 classic Alien was pitched to excited studio executives as ‘Jaws in space’, confirming not only the basic plot of that film within three words but also promoting the idea that the movie could be as successful as its indirect predecessor.
There are three main roles in Jaws, each played as flawed, distinct characters by the trio of Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss. Scheider, in the lead role, plays Police Chief Martin Brody, a family man and recent arrival to the island of Amity. He isn’t fond of the water anyway and the shark attacks only enhance his fears. Brody has a constant battle with the locals in regards to closing the beaches; understandable as their economy is dependent on the summer tourism trade and they consider him an outsider. Shaw plays Quint, an experienced shark hunter who offers to capture the predator for a fee and clashes with oceanographer Matt Hooper, played by Dreyfuss. Hooper is extremely knowledgeable when it comes to the sea but his privileged upbringing and reliance on technology infuriates the more traditional Quint. The threesome must work together, bonding as they do so, in order to take out the shark terrorising the Amity Island.
The characters smoke, drink, laugh, bicker and make mistakes, creating recognisable individuals that are far from caricatures and become real protagonists within the story. The film doesn’t present them as indestructible, infallible heroes and becomes richer for it, allowing us to see the characters faults as well as their positive attributes. The actors are brilliantly cast, although other actors were considered for the roles, notably Robert Duvall and Charlton Heston both as Chief Brody. Shaw, despite giving a fine performance, was reported to be a nightmare to work with, often drinking in excess and even developing a grudge against Dreyfuss who was receiving rave reviews for other work. However the finished product portrays three actors at the height of their abilities, embodying the work with a sense of realism and humanity.
There were other issues during the shoot, most famously with the model sharks (nicknamed Bruce). The models would often sink when not wanted, were easily damaged by water, became entangled in seaweed and would malfunction, causing multiple delays. Spielberg’s insistence that he would film at sea (rather than in a water tank) caused its own issues including other boats drifting in to frame, bad weather causing delays and on one occasion the main boat began to sink with the actors on board. The budget ballooned from $3 million to $9 million however all that and more would be recouped at the box office after positive reviews and word of mouth spread.
Some viewers, particularly in the modern age of special effects, will criticise the look of the shark however the fact that the shark didn’t look too convincing led Spielberg to only show minor glimpses of the beast until the final act of the movie. Using long shots, darkness and the point of view of the shark to overcome this, the movie builds up the tension and, when the shark is finally revealed in all its glory, the lack of reality is overcome by our feelings for the characters and the built-up fear slowly developed as the film had progressed, teasing us with glimpses of the beast.
And that music…
Created by John Williams, the films score is distinct, simple and effective and has become synonymous with the public’s perception of sharks as killers. The music was recognised with an Academy Award and has become a huge part of pop culture (as has the film itself), often parodied or paid homage to in other works.
Spielberg’s directing is flawless, capturing the fear felt by the people, the terror of the unknown before the waves and ranking up the tension at every possible moment while still allowing room for the characters to breath. The mixture of shots is typical of Spielberg at his best from long distance to extreme close-ups while his use of the Hitchock Vertigo shot (where a zoom is used as the camera pulls away, creating an unsettling visual distortion that appears to move away and move closer at the same time) during a beach scene is a historic moment in film, capturing the moment of fear on Brody’s face while also isolating him from those around him. This isolation is also felt when the team is on board the Orca boat with long distance panning shots establishing the loneliness of being out at sea. Even after a long career which includes directing Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, his work here has rarely been matched and still works as a benchmark in directing.
Surprisingly Spielberg was not nominated for an Oscar, although the film did win several awards and lost out to the Academy Award for Best film to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest which, if you’re going to lose, is a worthy movie to lose out to. Given the simple plot it would be easy to dismiss the film however the combination of cast and crew have created a timeless classic. The film still creates terror to this day in viewers old and new, has a place on many best of lists including the American Film Institute’s lists of best films, best musical scores, best villains (for the shark), an entry in the top 100 movie quotes (You’re gonna need a bigger boat’) and for many created a fear of the deep blue sea.
If you’ve never watched it, you’re missing out. If you haven’t watched it recently, give it another viewing. Just lean forward, don’t relax and be prepared to be afraid of the water.