Tuesday, July 4, 2017

My, What Big Teeth You Have

For the Scream 101 podcast episode about this film, click here.

Year: 1975
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss
Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

It’s Independence Day! For someone who dislikes hot dogs, medically can’t view fireworks, and has no discernible patriotic spirit, there’s no better way to celebrate the occasion than by kicking off a marathon of the Jaws quadrilogy! As per usual on this here blog, there’s no specific time frame for the next couple reviews, but keep your ear to the ground!

The other three Jaws flicks are but a drop in the bucket of the 1975 Steven Spielberg flick’s legacy, which includes Piranha, Alien, about half of Italy’s cinematic output between 1976 and 1983, and – oh yeah – the entire concept of blockbuster filmmaking as we know it. That’s a lot to hang on a little movie adapted from a Peter Benchley pulp novel about a giant fish. But, like its titular Great White, Jaws is strong enough to carry the weight.

That is, when it’s actually working.

Jaws starts off as an oceanbound slasher movie and sticks in that vein for a lot longer than people give it credit for (though in 1975, people wouldn’t exactly have had the parlance to recognize it as such, having only Psycho, Texas Chain Saw, and the Canadian import Black Christmas to look to). Off the coast of Amity Island, a skinny dipping co-ed (Susan Backlinie) becomes a midnight snack for a mysterious unseen creature heralded by John Williams’ twitchy minimalist title theme. The island’s police chief, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches immediately, but the town’s cocksure mayor (Murray Hamilton) insists that they remain open for the Fourth of July weekend – Amity’s biggest tourist season.

Thus the aquatic beast – a gargantuan Great White shark – is allowed the opportunity to feast on a three course meal of unsuspecting Amity-ites. After enough is very thoroughly proven to be enough, Brody takes to the seas with the sardonic oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and the grizzled sea captain/cartoon character Quint (Robert Shaw) to attempt to defeat the beast once and for all.

Or at least until they box office starts skyrocketing and they ship in another one.

Jaws made me jump. During an underwater investigation scene, I – a jaded horror veteran – was freaked out by a movie that’s over 40 years old. Honestly, I should end the review right there, that’s recommendation enough. But I have standards to uphold and so we press on.

For its first hour, Jaws is a perfect thriller machine. Spielberg’s tendencies toward the maudlin actually blend rather well with the 70’s grindhouse vein the film inhabits more than it lets on. Not only is a little boy devoured by a shark, but we get a deeply perfect shot of the masses scrambling out of the water, exiting the frame until just one bereaved mother is left on the sand. His short, sharp shocks are immediately followed by languid moments of emotion that grind your nose into how grim and grubby the situation is.

This all culminates in the most grindhousey ending possible: cutting to credits almost the very second the threat is defeated; and therein lies the problem with the second half of the movie. While the first half lives and dies on the colorful residents of Amity and their even more colorful demises, Jaws’ second hour is a pared-down potboiler focusing in on our three heroes. All that energy and tension now lies on the shoulders of a cartoon character, one of blockbuster cinema’s most boring protagonists (yeah I said it, sue me), and an admittedly great comic relief character attempting to fill the gaping void between the two.

You did what you could, Hoops.

Frankly, the third act is a bit of a slog, bouncing between solid action sequences and aimless filler for an exhausting stretch of time. For what it’s worth, you really do feel like you’ve been sitting on a boat for a day and a half. And I understand that many people enjoy every last minute of the film, and I am loathe to take that away from them. For me, it just falls a teensy bit flat.

Of course no amount of complaining could possibly take away from Jaws’ titanic and earned reputation. It’s a remarkably well-crafted thriller with showstopping effects (when they worked) and chilling implications of danger when they didn’t. Other than the unwise decision to hang the back half on the characters they did, there’s not a hole in Jaws’ construction, from the dialogue right on down to the music. 

And John Williams is in rare form here, composing a relatively restrained theme that transposes his typical bombast into a tightly controlled minimalist crescendo. While nothing else in the score remotely matches the majesty of the title theme, it’s such a tremendous piece of work that it’s hard to mind.

Jaws isn’t Spielberg’s best. It’s not Williams’ best. It’s nobody’s best. But it’s a magnificent creature produced by a team of incredible talents with supreme mastery of their craft. It’s a delight to watch even all these years later, and it has heartily earned its gargantuan status.

TL;DR: Jaws is a well-constructed thriller with a weak third act that doesn't quite sink its massive heft.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 897
Reviews In This Series
Jaws (Spielberg, 1975)
Jaws 2 (Szwarc, 1978)
Jaws 3-D (Alves, 1983)
Jaws: The Revenge (Sargent, 1987)

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