Classic Intel: Jaws - DVD Review

'whilst Jaws remains terrifying even after you see the shark in the flesh, it never matches the tension of the land sequences or the simple drama of the conservations between the out-of-their-depth officials and the scared stupid townsfolk'

In 2015, Jaws will be forty years old. Granted, that's another four years away but the standard of current special effects doesn't seem like it will raise much in that period of time and, on that basis, Jaws is going to be one handsome looking forty-year old.

Sure, some of the shots following the animatronic 'shark' as it moves through the water are dated in their composition and there's some obvious problems when we switch between the fake shark and real shark footage but, all in all, Jaws' effects still hold up pretty well, especially in the second half when the gigantic beastie appears on camera nearly as often as stars Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss.

The criticism of today's modern CGI-heavy blockbusters though is often that special effects do not a good feature film make. Why then has Jaws endured for so long? Is it simply down to the presence of Steven Spielberg or perhaps something to do with the fact that it is credited with starting the trend for the summer blockbuster?

The real answers as to the shark's endurance are of course much less simplistic, although the presence of Spielberg no doubt has a big influence. The director, for whom this was really a first significant break in Hollywood feature films, has become synonymous with the intelligent summer smash but perhaps not since Jaws has he managed to imbue a film with such genuinely palpable tension. The early scene which sees the death of the female swimmer is inevitable (you're watching a film about a giant shark called... erm... Jaws) but Spielberg ensures that there's tension right the way through the scene. The shots from the shark's point of view draw on the Peeping Tom-alike fear of being stalked and watched by something which, at this point, we the viewer have not seen, accentuated by the fact that Spielberg makes the first attack happen during pitch black night time.

As the film moves through, and especially in the second half which takes place almost entirely on the shark-hunting boat, Spielberg doesn't forget that he is reliant upon tension to save the film from stasis. Considering that the film basically turns into a one-location thriller for an hour or so, he's remarkably successful. The conversation where Quint (Shaw) reveals his experiences with sharks is initially full of humour but develops into a tension-rich character piece, reliant on minute reactions from the cast as the tale unfolds. It's a remarkable scene and one that keeps Jaws tense throughout.

Directorial magic is a given then, so why isn't Jaws perfect? There are two main reasons. Robert Shaw's Quint is one of them. He arrives unannounced in a town meeting, dragging his fingers down a chalk board as a very literal metaphor that he creates dischord amongst polite individuals. The problem with Quint's dischord is that it never escapes caricature. He is the atypical salty sea-dog, complete with beard and occasionally impenetrable accent. The same can be levelled at Hooper (Dreyfuss) who spends the entire film trying to escape his characterisation as the nerdy guy in spectacles and, unlike Quint, largely succeeds.

The other problem is to do with the film's step change halfway through. Whilst the time on the ship is well directed and finishes with aplomb, it never reaches the heights of the sequences on Amity Island. As Spielberg himself says in the two-hour documentary included on the DVD version, any monster film functions better when you don't see the monster and whilst Jaws remains terrifying even after you see him in the flesh, it never matches the tension of the land sequences or the simple drama of the conservations between the out-of-their-depth officials and the scared stupid townsfolk. That said, and again returning to its year of release, Jaws is a remarkable achievement for a 1975 creature feature, not many of which you see enduring all the way to the 2000's.

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  1. It was a great film to see in a crowded cinema. We queued right around the block (genuinely). Will never forget that scene with the head. The whole audience jumped out of their seats.

  2. I think that's pretty representative of why the film endures today because I still jumped out of my seat when the scene with the head hit and I've seen the bloody thing before!

    I've only ever queued literally out of the cinema for one film; INDEPENDENCE DAY. You don't see queues like that any more.

  3. I'm surprised you don't like the sequences on teh boat as much as those filmed on the island. I think the Orca stuff is actually more thrilling because we're now dealing with these three individuals who are stuck together on a boat in the middle of ocean. There's no protection. And I love the dynamic between the three of them.

  4. Generally I can take or leave one-location stuff. It just doesn't typically do it for me which is probably why I prefer JAWS' first half (although the second is still very good, I'm by no means saying its awful). Quite like the idea of a community under siege as well, rather than just three individuals in the latter parts of the film. Agree there's a great dynamic though and as I say, enjoyed re-watching it immensely.

  5. An absolute classic! And still gets the blood pumping

  6. While I see where you are coming from, I disagree to a certain extent. I think Jaws is about as near a perfect film as it's possible to make.

    Quint may be a bit of a stereotype, but I believe that it's done for efficiency rather than a flaw in the movie.

  7. Many would disagree with me Dan and as I say, I really like the film and I can see why people think its perfect. Quint does bug me though, especially his very literal introduction.