Jaws Blu-ray Review: After All These Years, The Shark Still Works

Jaws is often cited as a turning point for mainstream American cinema €“ its record-breaking success at the box office marking it as, essentially, the first Summer blockbuster. Watching it now, however, what is striking is how different it is to so much of its progeny, and a large part of that is down to the skill and dedication of the young Steven Spielberg, who knew how to tease, manipulate and frighten an audience, but also knew how important it was that the audience cared about the characters first. By the end of the opening sequence, the 26-year-old Spielberg has you in the palm of his hand. Take the attack on the Kintner boy. The placement of the scene, and its effect, is sometimes compared to Hitchcock€™s shower scene, although the sequence is weighed much more towards build-up than pay-off. Roy Scheider€™s cop, Police Chief Brody, sits on a deck chair with his attention fixed on the water. Around him people are enjoying their summer; they are blissfully unaware of the recent shark attack on a teenage girl. But Brody knows, and we know, which was almost Hitchcock€™s definition of suspense. As the camera works around the beach the activities of the tourists and locals €“ the snippets of gossip, the children playing €“ begin to feel alienating. Someone leans in to bend Brody€™s ear but Spielberg€™s subjective camera shows us his attention is still firmly on the water. From start to finish, it€™s one of the best scenes Spielberg has ever shot, building and building to its famous climax, as John Williams€™s music is briefly cued and Alex Kintner, seen, as Brody sees him, in a long shot, disappears in a flurry of blood, flesh and teeth. The audience doesn€™t see too much, but enough to be horrified. And, directly borrowing a technique from Hitchcock this time, the effect of the bottom of your stomach falling out is enforced by the reaction shot of Brody, the camera pushing in and zooming out at the same time (a shot invented, it seems, for Vertigo). The reason the film was such a hit, and the reason it has endured, was not because of the shark itself, which (though I wouldn€™t change it for the world) looks a bit dated, but because Spielberg and his team knew the importance of character and build-up, and perfectly understood the interaction between storytelling and technique. In another famous scene, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the oceanographer, examines an underwater wreckage and comes across a severed head. The moment probably produces the biggest jump-scare in the film, and on the Blu-Ray Spielberg explains how he did several versions of the shot to see which produced the biggest reaction. The one he chose is almost beautifully executed; the timing and use of negative space are just about perfect. Every technique, however brilliant, serves a very specific storytelling function. If Jaws, however, had just scared audiences, I€™m not sure it would have become quite such a phenomenon or be remembered so fondly today. If it starts out as a horror movie, it mutates by the end into an adventure one. Hooper and Brody, who is scared of the water, are joined by veteran shark hunter and salty old sea dog Quint, played by the great character actor Robert Shaw. He brings a lot of humour to the film, but he isn€™t just there for comic relief; he delivers a long and brilliant monologue at night on his boat (after the boys show each other their scars) about the sinking of the Indianapolis and the men on board who were picked off by sharks as they waited a long time for rescue. Each of the three has a good but different reason to go after the shark €“ Brody to protect his community and family, Hooper because of his fascination with the creatures, and Quint because of his history with sharks, and wouldn€™t it be quite something to catch a €˜twenty footer,€™ as Hooper surmises? €˜Twenty-five,€™ responds Quint. As well as marking a turning point in his career, the film is a turning point artistically for Spielberg, drawing on the relentless terror of his earlier film Duel, featuring a killer truck as opposed to a shark, and hinting at the importance of both adventure (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and family (E.T.) to his later work. The last act of the film is cathartic; while still exciting and tense, the strange chemistry between the men and the single-mindedness of their mission also feels like a relief from the grimness of, for instance, the death of the Kintner boy. Although audiences in 1975 were shaken by the film, they almost certainly left the theatres smiling; Spielberg knew exactly how far to push the viewer without overdoing it. It€™s about an hour into the film before we get a good look at the shark, by which time we€™re already won over (the film might have been seriously impaired if the shark had appeared in the first scene, as was originally intended). I have reached the end of this review and haven€™t even given credit to many people, besides Spielberg, whose contribution was invaluable. Perhaps that€™s because, at around the same age Orson Welles made Citizen Kane, he was able to craft a film this enduring. But mention should certainly also be made of Peter Benchley, who wrote the novel (and appears briefly in the film) and adapted the script with Carl Gottlieb; of Bill Butler, the DP; of Verna Fields, the editor (it was the last film she worked on); of the uncredited Howard Sackler and John Milius, who both wrote drafts of the brilliant Indianapolis speech before it was rewritten by Robert Shaw himself. And, of course, of John Williams, who with two fingers created one of the most effective and memorable movie themes of the 20th century. It never cheats: when we hear the music, the shark is present, and when we don€™t, it isn€™t. Whether we see it or not is almost irrelevant, because the music is the shark. Thank the movie gods that they didn€™t have CGI available to them. FILM (5 out of 5) In its day the most financially successful film ever made, the movie that Pauline Kael called €˜the most perversely entertaining scare picture ever made€™ is still brilliantly entertaining, and perhaps even more remarkable when we place it next to the average modern summer blockbuster. Its influence is immeasurable, but just as impressive is how entertaining it still is almost four decades later. QUALITY (4.5 out of 5) As anyone who saw the new, digitally remastered print in the cinema (there had long been a shortage of usable 35mm prints of Jaws) earlier this year can tell you, this is as good as Jaws has ever looked. No walkie-talkies-instead-of-guns style changes have been made (see: E.T. The 20th Anniversary Edition); it has just been cleaned up superbly and without losing its €™70s look and feel. The sound, remixed into 7.1, also doesn€™t go too far or feel too modern. It€™s a near-perfect restoration, giving polish to what is already there and defining the sound without ever distracting you by becoming too modern or incongruous. EXTRAS (4 out of 5) There€™s a good selection of extra features, although the majority of them were available on the DVD edition. The main differences are an hour-and-a-half (cut down from 3 hours on TV) doc narrated by Scheider called €œThe Shark is Still Working,€ which couples well with the Making of Jaws doc, as the latter is primarily about how the film came to be, and the former about its lasting effect and influence. There€™s also a featurette about the restoration process. Other features, such as deleted scenes, were available on the DVD edition. PRESENTATION (2.5 out of 5) The release is tied to Universal€™s centenary celebrations and the packaging and presentation is for the most part fine €“ however, I still find Universal€™s navigation menus slightly irksome. Their design is uninspired and generic, and they have an inexplicable tendency to use symbols on the main menu rather than words, a totally unnecessary complication. OVERALL (5 out of 5) It€™s Jaws on Blu-Ray and it looks and sounds as great as it ever has. Do you really need any further reason to buy it? Jaws is available on Blu-Ray now.
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I've been a film geek since childhood, and am yet to find a cure. Not an auteurist, but my favourite directors include Robert Altman, Ernst Lubitsch, Welles, Hitch and Kurosawa. I also love Powell & Pressburger movies, anything with Fred Astaire, Cary Grant or Katherine Hepburn, the space-ballet of 2001, Ealing comedies, subversive genre cinema and that bit in The Producers with the fountain.