This for me is Steven Spielberg’s best film. A bold statement indeed considering all the films he’s gone on to make since. With Jaws, though, Spielberg has perfectly crafted together all the elements needed to produce a quality movie and with stunning effect. In capturing the concerns of small town America, in what is now a classic thriller, Spielberg managed to bring widespread fear of swimming to the world. With the release of the digitally re-mastered DVD in 2000, made to celebrate the film’s 25th anniversary, he repeated the same feat for a whole new generation.
Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), is sheriff of a small coastal town called Amity. When the half-eaten torso of a missing swimmer is found on the beach, supposedly a victim of a shark attack, Brody’s first instinct is to shut the beaches. However, he soon finds himself caught between doing what he thinks is right and what’s good for Amity. Pushed by its Mayor (Murray Hamilton) he agrees to keep the beaches open so that the tourist dollars that the town thrives on aren’t driven away. Unfortunately for Brody a young boy is killed shortly after, confirming his worst fears and forcing the closure of the beaches. Shark expert, Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), is brought in by Brody verifies the shark attacks. Worse news follows as he comes to the conclusion that this isn’t any old shark they’re dealing with – it’s a Great White and it’s not going anywhere until the local ‘food supply’ dries up. With Amity’s summer season at stake the only choice open to Brody is to go after the shark. Hiring Quint (Robert Shaw), a local fisherman, Brody and Hooper set out in pursuit of the larger than life fish.
A reworking of Peter Benchley’s original script (leaving out some distracting subplots) Spielberg concentrated on the simple story of man against beast, which is where the strength of this film lies. It enabled him to focus on the superb characters at hand – Brody, a police chief with a fear of water; Hooper, an over-enthusiastic shark expert; Quint, a world weary sailor; and Mayor Vaughn, an ambitious politician whose only concern is the local tourist economy. These characters are given room to grow throughout the film and how they react to the threat of the shark provides a palpable realism.
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The cast is well chosen and acts superbly. The direction by Spielberg brilliantly conveys the isolation of the characters at sea, the power of the beast at hand and the intimacy that builds between the shark’s pursuers. He shifts between suspense, humour, and sheer terror smoothly and effortlessly. When you add the haunting score by John Williams into the mix you find yourself with a well-rounded film that stands up to the claims of being one of the best films ever made.
Perhaps the only part of this movie that lets it down is the special effects of the shark itself. Creating a working model of a shark proved problematic and was the cause of endless delays in filming. However, this led Spielberg into making the decision of unveiling the actual shark very late into the film, thus adding to the suspense – tantalising us with the potential horror of the beast only adds to our fear. I’ve heard rumours over the years that now the computer technology is so advanced Spielberg will come back to Jaws in order to make the scenes shot with the shark more realistic. I hope this doesn’t happen because the original is a classic that still stands up to the test of time almost three decades on.