It’s the one that started them all, and almost forty years on, it has rarely been matched in terms of sheer thrilling, white-knuckle spectacle. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws returns to UK cinemas this week, boasting a dazzling 4K restoration that makes those shark-infested waters feel more terrifying than ever.
Though it was Spielberg’s first foray into high-concept filmmaking, Jaws continues to serve as a blueprint for the blockbuster film, has spawned countless imitators, and remains a perfect example of how to perfectly build suspense. It all begins with the death of a young swimmer at the jaws of a shark, an influential scene in of itself, the very first “stinger kill”, which would populate slasher films in the succeeding years. While more bodies turn up on Amity Island, Spielberg milks the slow burn, hiding the shark in his watery depths, instead introducing us to Roy Scheider’s protagonist, Police Chief Martin Brody.
It remains invigorating not just because the characters – including Robert Shaw’s ballsy shark-hunter Quint, and Richard Dreyfuss’ dedicated marine biologist Matt Hooper – are well-developed and extremely likable, but because the script is fraught with motivation and fear at every turn. The bureaucratic Mayor demands that the beach stay open despite the suspicious deaths, but once an attack is witnessed at the beach, mass hysteria takes over. Everyone has a right to be scared, which combines with Brody’s guilt at keeping the beach open, and some gory suspense sequences, generating an anarchic, intense mix.
Due to malfunctioning shark equipment, Spielberg by necessity had to master the art of the tease, holding the shark back as much as possible, luring us into a false sense of security before unleashing it in brief, violent bursts. The sight of it drifting by underwater remains as terrifying as anything else in the film, stupendously, economically well-directed for maximum punchiness. The ramp-up, ramp-down of excitement is so anxiety-inducing – complete with shocking gore and what the BBFC refer to as “sustained threat” – that it’s amazing the film was originally released as a PG.
On the lighter side, the insights into family that are now-customary for Spielberg’s films are alive and well here; Brody is a driven family man, all the more concerned when a young boy is killed by the shark, naturally feeling compelled to protect the beach for the sake of his own children. Also, a class war is briefly probed during the antagonism between Quint and Hooper, the former a wise-cracking, beer-swilling “working class hero”, while Hooper is better-educated and serious-minded, and Brody falls somewhere in the middle as the arbiter.
When it comes down to basics, Spielberg doesn’t let up on the action; it is intelligently formed, such as when the intrepid trio famously uses a series of barrels to keep track of the shark’s movements. It kick-starts a thrilling man-vs-beast showdown that commands just about the entirety of the third act. Even though we naturally have a leg-up on the audiences of the time – for in this restored presentation, the shark’s falseness seems even more obvious than before – it continues to instill fear because Spielberg’s direction is so assuredly taut, and bolstered entirely by John Williams’ memorably minimalist, terror-inducing score.
Watching the latest Summer smashes, it is virtually impossible to list the sheer number of ways that they were influenced by Steven Spielberg’s seminal action adventure film. Furthermore, Jaws continues to be regarded as a high-point of the legend’s oeuvre, and justifiably so. It remains an influence on the modern blockbuster, and is one of its best examples.
Jaws is on limited re-release in the UK from today.
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