action thriller eco-horror
Trivia There's a ridiculous amount of trivia to go with this movie, and pretty much all of it can be found over at imdb.
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Jaws - 30th Anniversary edition (1975)
23rd Jun 05
A police chief, a marine biologist, and a maverick fisherman set out to kill a shark that is menacing the seaside community of Amity Island
The early 70s were perhaps the last time anyone ever felt safe at the seaside, because in 1975 a well-crafted, crowd-pleasing action-horror movie was released on to an unsuspecting public, and the way we look at water was redefined forever. That movie was of course Jaws, a film which single-handedly invented the summer block-buster, wrote the rule book for the whole eco-horror genre and, of course, made millions upon millions of men, women and in particular children, afraid of the water everywhere. “Did you now most shark attacks happen in 3ft of water 10ft from the coast?” We’d tell each other, and then we’d lie down and do a bit of sun bathing, safe and dry. After all, you can never be too careful. Jaws changed everything overnight, and even now 30 years on, it’s easy to see why.
The story centres on the ironically hydrophobic Police Chief Martin Brody (Rob Schneider). Newly arrived from New York to take up the post of lawman in the quiet resort island of Amity, he and his family are still trying to settle in when a young woman is killed in an apparent shark attack. Brody soon finds himself in the unenviable position of having to close beaches right before the start of the summer holiday season, which goes down like a tonne of bricks with the town business men, lead by the corrupt mayor (Murray Hamilton), as these are the most serious money making months of the year for local industry, and ones they can’t do without. Under a lot of pressure from these local officials, the town doctor ‘reappraises’ the situation, changes the cause of death to a boating accident, and Brody is forced to reopen the beaches despite his protests.
Sure enough, within a day a young boy is killed as his mother and other onlookers can do nothing but watch helplessly. Soon after the grief stricken mother puts out a $3000 reward for the shark, and all hell breaks loose with marine hunters and lots of crazy fools with boats and rifles coming from all over to try their luck. And one of them does get lucky, catching a big tiger shark in the bay.
Meanwhile, amidst all the commotion, a young marine researcher named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) arrives after being called in by the troubled Brody, and he immediately identifies the shark they’ve caught as a man-eater, but he’s doubtful that it’s the shark that killed the girl from the beginning as the shark’s teeth look too small when compared to the victim’s bite wounds. Gutting the fish later on (after dinner and a few drinks at Brody’s) their suspicions are confirmed as there’s no body to be found, not a trace.
They quickly head out to look for the fish in Hooper’s fancy radar equipped boat, but instead they find a boat owned by local fishermen, killed while trying to win the reward for the malevolent fish. But in the hull of this boat they find a tooth of what must be a huge great white shark, and so Brody and Hooper race back to shore to try and convince the mayor that the beaches must be closed. The voices fall on deaf ears however, the mayor orders the beaches open and inevitably, in a scene of wonderfully filmed mass panic, the shark claims another victim.
With their summer season in tatters, the mayor finally succumbs and agrees to let Brody hire eccentric crazy local fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) to kill the shark, providing he takes him and Hooper along for the ride. He reluctantly agrees and the three men set out in Quint’s timeworn boat Orca in search of the Great White and it’s here that the movie changes gear somewhat. In the confines of the claustrophobic boat the three characters put aside their apprehensions, and the tensions between them, as they pursue the shark. It’s the strength of this narrative, enforced by the suspense built by the shark’s relentless attack that drives the story on to its very explosive conclusion.
But it’s the story behind the story of Jaws that’s the most intriguing. Jaws was Steven Spielberg’s first big-budget major motion picture coming of the success of his highly acclaimed young filmmaker’s exceptional debut TV-movie Duel, and it was important that he didn’t mess it up. That meant he had to bring a quality film in on time and without going over budget – his career practically depended on it – in which case he didn’t need to turn up on set for the first day of the shoot only to be told his mechanical shark didn’t work.
On all initial trials the shark’s radio controls failed to respond and the beast often just sank to the bottom of the ocean (one of the dummy rigs was actually lost this way at sea) and it took nearly two-thirds of the shot to get the thing working.
And the shark wasn’t the only problem. Veteran screen legend Robert Shaw apparently didn’t warm to Richard Dreyfuss all that much and so the atmosphere on set was often tense. Add to that the fact that many reports tell of Robert Shaw having a wee bit too much to drink on occasion and you can seen that Spielberg had his hands full. In fact, Shaw originally insisted on having his first stab at the famous ‘Indianapolis’ speech totally drunk. It was a shambles of course – he ended up rambling on about his family apparently – and had to be reshot in the morning, but apparently Shaw was very apologetic about it all the same.
Talking about the ‘Indianapolis’ speech, that was the one section of the script that caused real concern. Neither Bentley, the author of the novel, or Carl Gottlieb, the script-writer on the project could agree on the dialogue, which was a major cause for concern. Ironic it must have been, then, when Robert Shaw delivered his interpretation of the speech and it was exactly what everybody had wanted - it must have felt like things were finally on the up.
And of course, they were. Not having a shark to shoot the opening death-scenes with forced Spielberg to improvise, so he went with loads of underwater shark POV shots accompanied by Williams’ legendary two-note score. It worked amazingly, building up tension while never exposing the true nature of the beast – less is more – and audiences loved it. They also responded to the strong performances of the principal cast, most notably Schneider, Dreyfuss and Shaw, as they bond while hunting the great beast through the second half of the film. The supposed tensions on set it appears only lent to enforce the mood apparent on the ship, adding to the general atmosphere of the piece.
But as gripping as the second half is, you could also land a lot of praise on the gradual build up to it, from the first death and body discovery right up to when they get the go ahead to go after the big fish. Spielberg makes massively good use of the whole widescreen aspect to capture as much stuff going on as possible, and many frames contain different scenes being played out in the foreground in the background, with it not always being what’s in focus that catches your eye. Brody on the phone while his wife chides their kid while washing his hands is straightforward enough, but shots of Brody talking to his wife on the beach while in the background all the kids are splashing around in the water is a different story. The real kicker though is the scene when Brody’s shovelling bait of the Orca to tempt the shark and, through the out-of-focus background, comes the brute in all its terrible glory. Urgh, makes me shiver just thinking about it.
In the end, Jaws is so much more than the summer blockbuster which broke all the records all those years ago. It’s scary without being grotesque, and ambitious without being implausible. Schneider’s Brody is the easy-to-warm-to average bloke, beset by fears we all have, who has to rise to the occasion in an unlikely situation. Dreyfuss’s Hooper is the young scientist who is arrogant enough not to come off as nerdy, and his friendship with Brody provides the hook to keep the story moving along. Shaw’s Quint, ace shark hunter with a chip on his shoulder, is a worthy opponent for the shark and also provides foil to the other two. Overall the suspense is thrilling and the action captivating, but there’s enough humour, emotion and all-round masterful character development here to call this one a classic, especially if you watch it on widescreen DVD. I don’t know about you, but with picture quality that good, the 70s feel like only a few years ago.
After Jaws, it seemed every living creature was suddenly out to get us. The late 70s and early 80s brought us a lot of eco-horror pictures - Squirm, The Rats, Grizzly, Piranha, Kingdom of the Spiders - the list seems endless. But they all have one thing in common and that's the eco-horror rules, worked out at this recent Zombie Club session recently.
An eco-horror's plot elements must include:
• A creature which, for what ever reason, embarks on a human killing spree. If the killing spree is caused by the creature mutating because of man-made pollutants, that’s even better.
• A couple of thinly characterised teenagers that get eaten early.
• A central character in a position of authority (sheriff, coast guard, professor), preferably with a small child who likes to get in peril. Obviously, this character works out the threat before anyone else does, but isn’t taken seriously for two-thirds of the flick.
• A local politician (preferably a mayor) who refuses to postpone the opening of the new subway extension / close the beach / call off the town fair, no matter what the hero says.
• An expert who gets bought in halfway through the film, to offer sage-like advice. The expert making it to the end in one piece is always optional.
Versions The 30th Anniversary edition DVD has the following extras:
Complete "The Making of Jaws" -documentary (directed by Laurent Bouzereau - 2 hours)
"From the Set" -featurette (from 1974 - 9 min)
"The Jaws Archives":
-The Jaws phenomenon
-Storyboards (by illustrator Tom Wright)
Deleted scenes and outtakes (14 min)
60-page Commemorative Photo Journal
but does not contain the following, available on earlier Jaws DVD releases
-Shark world (educational featurette)
-Cast & crew filmographies
The 2 hour documentary, originally made for the laserdisc release, is so good it's enough to buy the 30th Anniversary edition for alone. Apart from that there's not a lot in it between this version and the 25th Anniversary edition. The photo diary packaged with this DVD is a neat little extra, but it's mostly just full of photos we've seen before.