Sunday, July 4, 2010
AFI Top 100 Ranking: 56
Writer: Peter Benchley, Carl Gottlieb
Director: Steven Spielberg
Star: Roy Schneider, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw
For a movie about a great white shark that attacks a New England town then stalks a boat and ultimately jumps onboard to catch its prey, “Jaws” feels pretty damn plausible. This is because everyone in the film, from the leads down to the day-players, reacts to the situation the way real people would react.
Newer action and films seem to have forgotten this, instead trying to stun the audience with a moment shock and awe moment with little set-up or afterthought. We rarely get more than a reaction shot of John Cusack driving his vehicle through the disintegrating Los Angeles in “2012,” and therefore our only emotional reaction to the situation is to think we are looking at some really expensive special effects.
The most famous moment in “Jaws” happens when Chief Brody (Roy Schneider) and the viewer get the first full view of the Great White. He jumps in shock, backs into the hold of the boat and tells Quint (Robert Shaw) that “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Great moment. But even better when taken in the context of Brody’s character. He loathes the ocean and hates the ship, and after this moment will repeatedly ask Quint to return to shore to get a bigger boat, not just for the shark’s carcass, but also for his sanity. This is a “real person” reacting to a crazy situation in the exact way we would expect him to react.
Of course there is a good hour-and-a-half of film before the first time we really get a good look at that shark. We see traces (the fin, of course, but also one or two brief glimpses of its body when it attacks a boy on a raft), and Spielberg is brilliant to play it that way. After the opening scene, where a woman pulled back and forth like a Barbie doll on the surface of the ocean by an unseen entity just below, our minds form a specific idea of what the shark is like. Then a shark is caught, and it’s pretty damn big and impressive to anyone who hadn’t seen the film’s poster. But no, Richard Dreyfuss’ Oceanologist Hooper tells us, the shark that has killed two people so far would be bigger. While investigating the shark’s feeding territory, they find an abandoned boat with a tooth the size of a shot-glass embedded in the hull. Our expectations have become exceedingly high…and then it appears, and it still manages to surpass all of them.
From that point onward, we see the shark often, though Spielberg still teases us with its presence by attaching three floating barrels to its body to signal its arrival before we actually see it. The most affecting shots of the shark are the ones showing its gigantic twenty-five foot body swimming past the ship it is stalking because it looks more massive than the barely-together deathtrap. That ship is nothing to the shark, and we sense that. There’s some real-life footage of a great white thrown in during the final act, and these shots seem out of place. We don’t need to see a real shark swimming in its entirety when the short glimpses are so much more effective.
While “Jaws” walks and talks like an action flick, at its heart it’s a horror movie. It’s a well-made horror movie, to be sure, but there are a few moments where Spielberg along with writers Peter Benchley (author of the novel the film is based upon) and Carl Gottlieb are too fast to exploit the more annoying clichés we are so apt to groan at. Take the scene on the Fourth of July, where there are at least a dozen boats filled with officers, rifles and ammunition lining the beaches of Amity just waiting for a shark. A shark fin appears and every swimmer runs for shore, and we learn that the fin was a prank pulled by two young boys. Not only are we supposed to believe that they could stay underwater for long enough to convincingly make that fin seem like a shark (huge lungs. Huge!), but also that all those officers would not shoot the fin to try and kill the shark. Oh, and then there’s the thought that the shark would avoid all this noise and swim through the narrow channel into the pond area because it is smart enough to know people will be there with guns. There’s also a moment late in the film after the shark bites one of the main characters in half where it seems to teleport to the other side of the ship in order to scare Brody (and, by extension, us) by exploding through the submerged glass window behind him. Uh huh.
But again, the fact that the wholly excellent cast reacts to these situations so honestly makes up for some of these leaps in logic. Schneider, Dreyfuss and Shaw, the three men who anchor (no pun intended…well…maybe a little) the film give superb performances. All have one or two moments in the spotlight to really let loose and show what great acting is (the most memorable being Shaw’s five minute monologue about the sinking of the Indianapolis and aftermath), but the film is at its best when the three men are interacting with one another. All could easily become clichés if in the hands of lesser actors or a lesser writer, but here the things that would define two-dimensional characters in other movies are small parts of the characters’ personalities. Look at Hooper. We learn he’s a rich kid, and though that makes us better understand some of his later actions, he’s so much more than that. Just because he’s rich doesn’t make him a whiny brat or a know-it-all. The supporting cast is also filled with rich performances, most notably Lorraine Gary as Brody’s wife and Murray Hamilton as the town’s oily mayor.
Thanks to the great cinematography and oceanic locations, the film still feels very visceral and real. As enjoyable as Renny Harlin’s shark movie “Deep Blue Sea” was, there wasn’t a moment of real tension or terror anywhere to be found. We know that those actors are on studio sets reacting to CGI sharks, whereas here they are on an actual ocean with a huge mechanical shark with very sharp teeth inches away from them.
If I didn’t already loathe the idea of going into the ocean for any reason, “Jaws” would still convince me to keep the hell out of the water. And any film that wields that kind of power over its audience deserves the screams it gets.
My Score (out of 5): ****1/2