Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
You would think that a movie like “Jaws” is an easy film to make. All a filmmaker needs (or “wants”) is a mechanical shark, then to arrange for a bigger mechanical shark, and then to make a b-movie about a giant shark that attacks unlucky swimmers in a lake in which cardboard-stiff characters are the ones who stand against it. Oh yeah, and it would also come from outer space. Don’t ask me how I came up with this horrible idea for a movie, but I can imagine what “Jaws” would have been like if it followed that arrangement, and I would cringe if that really happened. But “Jaws” is a superior movie that features a regular great white shark that attacks near an island and three truly interesting characters that must set out to kill it.
Adapted from Peter Benchley’s popular novel, “Jaws” lets us know right at the beginning just what we’re in for—a shark is on the attack and in a terrifying opening scene, it tears apart a swimming woman—but then it becomes something more and isn’t merely a shark-attack movie but a character piece as well. The scares are all there, as the shark continues to kill, but there is plenty of running time for character development. It kind of reminds me of “The Exorcist”—just as frightening and also with real characters that we care about. First in “Jaws,” we meet Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the police chief of Amity who comes from New York and moved to the island with his wife and children to get away from city life. Then we meet Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a rich kid who became an oceanographer simply because he loves sharks. And at last we meet Quint (Robert Shaw), a Capt. Ahab type of crusty person—he’s a caricature but he has his own dark past as well.
The first half of this movie is mostly about the attacks and the investigation behind them. I mentioned “The Exorcist” above, but with “Jaws,” which is as frightening, is also more fun because we’re not being frightened on the devil but more of that feeling of “something” in the water. When Brody and Hooper are fully convinced that a great white shark is behind this, they hire Quint to take them out on his boat called “The Orca” to set out to find it and kill it. That brings us the second half of the film, which is an hour of “man versus beast.” This is really exciting to watch because we watch these characters go to many lengths to try and capture this thing, which turns out to be bigger than they thought (“You’re going to need a bigger boat,” Brody nervously declares). How these three main characters are developed makes “Jaws” an all the more effective thriller and action picture. These are people we feel that we know and therefore, we care for them and fear for their lives as they try to outwit this horrible creature of the sea.
Director Steven Spielberg does a sensational job at bringing the movie its realism and fright. For one thing, he shows the characters as they truly could be. And for another thing, he borrows from Alfred Hitchcock in bringing in more suspense by keeping the monster/villain out of sight for a whole hour and a half into the movie (when the shark attacks, we only see glimpses of it). And another nice touch is how the real villain (in the first half, anyway) is not the shark but the mayor of the island (Murray Hamilton). He knows that something is wrong in the water. But he doesn’t want to lose his summer tourists, so he says it’s OK for everyone to go into the water.
The performances are all excellent—Roy Scheider’s character in particular is the character that most of us identify with because he just feels like somebody we know and he’s just sort of the everyman. And we believe him when he becomes nervous out on the water after we all knew from the start that he was afraid of water and not exactly thrilled about going after a shark. Robert Shaw is cheerfully wild as the old man who walks around like the “man at sea” and then gives a compelling monologue about how he was aboard the Indianapolis. Richard Dreyfuss is an inspired casting choice to play the oceanographer and brings some comic timing with his subtle wit.
As for the shark, I believed the illusion that a great white shark was on the attack, though I’m not quite sure I believe that’s a real shark that attempts to destroy the ship and attack the men on board near the end. But for the most part, it feels like a real shark. “Jaws” is a sensational adventure directed with masterful standing attention by Steven Spielberg, well-acted by the three main characters, and genuinely frightening.