Saturday, May 19, 2007

Jaws (1975)

Jaws (1975)

You're gonna need a bigger boat

The 1975 classic 'Jaws' is the seminal blockbuster and director Steven Spielberg's breakout hit. Based on the book by Peter Benchley, it was a landmark film that is still regarded as the epitome of the perfect blockbuster. Watching it after several years, I was amazed once again by how well it has aged; it may look dated in a few respects, but it still thrills and entertains and is engrossing from start to finish.

'Jaws' begins with what is now the de facto style for a horror movie opening - the death of a hapless teen, in this instance along the shores of the island of Amity by way of a monstrous shark in a shocking (but not explicit) scene. This event is followed by the introduction of Chief of Police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider, future captain of the Seaquest), a man who hates the water but moved to Amity to get his family away from the violence of the city. When the teenage girl's body washes up and the medical examiner concludes that it was a shark attack, Brody orders the beaches closed. This rankles the Mayor (Murray Hamilton), who doesn't want the town's tourist business to be adversely affected. He convinces Brody to keep the beaches open.

Brody's worst fears are realized when a boy is devoured by the shark; this time the beaches are closed down, and a hunt for the shark ensues. A local fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw) promises to kill the shark for a price, but before the town can take up his offer the shark hunters return home successful, putting fears to rest. A shark expert named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) arrives on the scene and claims that the shark that was killed isn't the rampaging killer shark, but is ignored until another killing takes place. This prompts the town officials to take up Quint's offer, and he sets sail in his ship the 'Orca' together with Chief Brody and Hooper to kill the beast.

'Jaws' is virtually note perfect in execution. Structurally it's fantastic - there's a brilliant introduction to the beast, followed by a layered introduction of the setting and politics and characters, each element adding a new dimension to the story as the shark keeps attacking and revealing itself just a little bit more. With each incident, the shark is shown to be more and more dangerous. The story is fairly simple but believable in terms of characters and logical progression, and it's really the execution of the story that soars. The film is split into two parts - one half in the town and the other half at sea. The first part is all introduction and buildup, and it establishes Amity as a small town community full of bickering personalities. The main characters are completely distinctive and wonderfully realized, with believable motivations and quirks. The second part is where things really heat up as the three heroes clash repeatedly with the shark and with each other - Quint and Hooper engage in verbal class warfare as they squabble over every little thing, with Brody stuck helplessly in the middle doing all the chores.

The dialogue throughout the film is excellent, with frequent use of overlapping dialogue adding to the hubbub and chaos when the town starts to fall apart. The most memorable piece of writing is the monologue from Quint about the tragedy of the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which is an affecting scene no matter how many times you've seen it. There's also a lot of subtle humour throughout, particularly courtesy of Quint and his abrasive personality. It's incredible how tense the whole film is despite the fact that there's very little action and the shark isn't around much of the time. Even when it is around it's hardly ever shown, which makes it all the more effective (the few times it's fully revealed it looks fake, but never enough to draw you out of the story). By making the shark an unseen menace that permeates every scene and focusing on the characters and imbuing them with humanity, Spielberg makes them worth caring about, and the film is more nail biting as a result when the shark actually shows up. The few 'action' sequences that take place are exciting affairs, as the men scramble on the deck firing harpoons and even shooting at the shark with a pistol as it attempts to demolish their ship. The bleak isolation of the ocean and the small, lonely boat (they really did need a bigger one) adds to the sense of despair, and the final assault by the shark and the conclusion ("smile, you son of a bitch!") are outrageous and immensely satisfying.

A lot of credit has to go to the cast. Even the supporting players and the kids are excellent in their minor roles, but the central triumvirate are the heart of the film. Shcreider, Dreyfuss, and Shaw are brilliant in their roles, there's not much else to say about them. Each one on their own would have been compelling in their respective roles, but together these three actors make for something special, and the film wouldn't be half as great without them and their strange camaraderie (what else can I call it?). Another element that elevates the film is the classic score by John Williams, which lends it so much personality, particularly to the shark. The main theme is iconic, and understandably so.

'Jaws' is near perfect film-making, and it puts most modern blockbusters to shame. There's no excess, it's a lean film that's devoid of clichés and chock full of memorable moments. A classic that I enjoy more each time I see it.

No comments: