Jaws is the film often credited with kicking off the Blockbuster phenomenon. Spielberg´s adaptation of the best selling Peter Benchley book about a man-eating great white shark which terrorises the small resort island of Amity was a smash hit on release back in 1975 and had a profound impact on the way movies have been made and marketed ever since.
The plot focuses on a fictional island resort named Amity which is famed for its beaches. Each summer hordes of tourists visit to swim and play in the sea. The chief of police is the hero of the film, an ex-New York cop named Brody who has moved out to Amity for some peace and quiet. Sadly for Chief Brody things are about to get very tense in his little town as people begin to wash ashore with big bite marks in them.
Brody has to find out what is happening and battle with the town Mayor who believes shark deaths are acceptable in the name of profit and is refusing to close the beach to the public. He enlists some help from a marine biologist called Matt Hooper and they form a theory about a huge man-eating great white shark. The next step is to hunt the thing down and kill it, enter Quint, the mercenary shark hunter who agrees to take them out on an expedition.
Jaws was something of a surprise success from the unknown Steven Spielberg and was the first movie to reach the $100 million mark pulling over 67 million Americans into theatres during the summer of 1975. The filming was complicated by the problems Spielberg suffered with his mechanical shark which simply didn´t look good enough in many shots and wasn´t working at all for long periods of the shoot. This led him to film from the shark´s perspective, a technique which when combined with John Williams incredible music created one of the most memorable and fear inducing scenes ever to grace the silver screen. Indeed a huge part of the success of Jaws as a film is down to the music (if you don´t believe me just try watching the shark perspective scene without the sound). Williams created a score so memorable that it has been frequently referenced over the years and Jaws just would not have had the impact it did without his contribution.
The cast is also very good. Roy Schneider is Chief Brody and he really convinces in this key part, Brody cares about the safety of his people and his reactive personality gets him into trouble with the local business goons led by the mayor. A very young looking Richard Dreyfuss plays the marine biologist Hooper and he is equally good, a bookish but charismatic guy who´s keen to lend a hand. Robert Shaw is the malevolent Quint and he is suitably worldly wise, swarthy and insanely driven for this Captain Ahab style part.
The direction is excellent and very inventive. Spielberg´s rise to fame was inevitable after this movie. The direction here is intensely chilling in places, as with the opening sequence of the girl going for a swim and being pulled under. The fact that you don´t even see the shark for the first half of the movie is genius and really helps to build the tension.
The tremendous success of Jaws encouraged the studios to chase after that Blockbuster margin. They concentrated their efforts on pushing the big budget productions effectively putting all their eggs into one basket and since budgets continued to soar ever higher even one flop could potentially sink them. This practice has, according to many industry insiders, ruined the movie business. It has certainly made things a lot harder for independents and while blockbuster movies used to be a rare event there are now more and more of them competing for the same audience. There have been many hugely expensive flops over the past few years but despite a small resurgence in independent film the studios have yet to learn their lesson.
Jaws also deserves some criticism for demonising sharks. The resulting shockwave of fear created by this movie led to sharks being hunted to near extinction in some areas. Can you really blame the film makers for this though? In a sense Spielberg did his job too well and provoked an extreme audience reaction which couldn´t really have been foreseen.
In any event Jaws is an excellent film which is very well directed and acted. It is a polished production which stands up well to the ravages of time, and unlike many blockbusters since, Jaws deserved the audience it got. Like a modernised version of Moby Dick, Jaws captured the imagination of people everywhere and caused many to avoid the water for fear of what may be lurking beneath the surface.