You’re gonna need a bigger boat.
It was based on a best-selling novel. It took over 150 days to film under maddening conditions. It became the first movie to gross over $100 million. It won three Academy Awards. And, it made Steven Spielberg a household name. All this from a movie about a big fish with a nasty temper.
In 1975, Steven Spielberg wasn’t the über-famous director he is today. He had directed several short films, a few episodes of television shows, a couple well-received made-for-TV movies (including Duel), and one theatrical feature that was a flop (Sugarland Express). Still, the producers of that flop knew his potential, so they put into his hands the film adaptation of Peter Benchley’s mega-bestselling novel, “Jaws.”
The production of Jaws was troubled from the start. A pending Screen Actors Guild strike put a cramp on the filming dates. The location — Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts — was not known for its cooperative weather. There were squabbles with Benchley, who objected to changes Spielberg wished to make to the story (including changing the ending). And then there was Bruce. Bruce was the mechanical shark (named after Spielberg’s lawyer, none too affectionately I’m sure), and he was harder to work with than Marlon Brando when he hasn’t had a Big Mac. Days would go by when not a single shot could be filmed, either because Bruce was not working or the weather would not cooperate. It was a wonder the film reached the theatres at all. Test audiences loved it, it became a huge success, and the rest is history.
Jaws is a classic Spielberg film in every way. When he isn’t trying to make “important” movies, Spielberg’s films capture a certain fantastical view of the world, as if reality has been filtered through the eyes of a child. Archaeologists spend most of their time fundraising and dusting off rocks, not trotting across the globe, searching for mythological artifacts while avoiding death at the hands of the Nazis, but that’s what Indiana Jones does. Scientists will probably never be able to resurrect extinct species, but a child can imagine the possibilities if that could happen, like in Jurassic Park. Every lonely kid would love to find a little alien buddy in his tool shed, like Elliot did in E.T. Young or old, who hasn’t stood at the edge of the ocean and wondered if a giant shark would gobble them whole? Or at least, who hasn’t wondered that since 1975?
The plot of Jaws is simple and well known, so I’ll be brief. In the ocean surrounding Amity, a small tourist resort off the coast of New England, a 25-foot man-eating predator stalks any human foolish enough to get in the water. At first, the only believer in the shark’s existence is the town’s chief of police, Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). Brody enlists the help of Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), a scientist, and Quint (Robert Shaw), a crusty old seaman whose life is devoted to hunting sharks. The threesome sets off in Quint’s boat to kill the leviathan.
See? Like I said, the plot is simple, but its simplicity is what makes it effective. The movie is carefully built to keep the audience on edge. It never cheats the audience — notice that the music cues never announce “red herrings,” only the appearance of the real shark. The impact of the movie’s violence is never cheapened. The awkwardness of filming with the unpredictable mechanical shark works in the film’s benefit. Because we do not see the shark for over an hour of the film, we get to see things from its point of view. What’s scarier, the shark that jumps out of the water to go “boo” every few minutes starting with the first reel, or the slow-building menace of watching from its eyes as it circles underneath unaware swimmers? It’s the difference between the cheap thrills of modern slasher movies, and the suspense of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. I’ll take suspense over scares any day.
That brings me to the inevitable comparisons to the movies that have tried to duplicate or get the better of Spielberg’s masterpiece. Specifically, I’m thinking of Deep Blue Sea. To be perfectly honest, I really liked Deep Blue Sea, beyond all reasonable explanation for a movie that’s so cheesy. I admired its moxie, its determination to be…nothing more than a cheesy, exploitative, effects-driven popcorn movie. But where Deep Blue Sea goes for brutal in-your-face violence and carnage, Jaws takes the subtle, suspenseful route. Like Alfred Hitchcock said, “There is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Jaws gives us the prospect that something very, very bad is going to happen at every turn. The modern special effects of Deep Blue Sea gave the filmmakers the opportunity to show more of the sharks, and to show more of them in action, but it also takes away the suspense. Which scene produces the more visceral, chilling, emotional response? The scene in Deep Blue Sea where the shark jumps out of the water (like it’s jumping up to yell “boo!”) to eat Samuel L. Jackson in one bite, or the scene preceding Alex Kintner’s death in Jaws, where you know the shark is there (even if you don’t see it) and that something bad is going to happen?
To draw another parallel, there’s also something that Jaws shares in common with Pulp Fiction: it’s far less violent than you remember. Though it does have a high body count, most of Pulp Fiction‘s more violent violence takes place off-screen, leaving the details to the mind of the viewer. How many people die in the…err, jaws of Jaws in Jaws? On-screen, that is. Here’s a hint: you can count them on one hand. Four on-screen, and one more that’s implied when you see his disembodied head.
Jaws is a triumph of sorts for the DVD community: It’s the first of Spielberg’s A-list titles to be released in our favorite format. With the announcement of Jurassic Park, one can hope that the Indiana Jones trilogy and E.T. won’t be far behind. There has been some controversy behind this DVD release. First, purists were upset that the Oscar-winning monaural sound mix would not be present on the DVD. Second, they were upset that the two-hour documentary of the making of the film, present in its entirety on the laserdisc, would be truncated to an hour. I’m going to agree with them on both points. Details to follow.
The film is presented in 2.35:1 anamorphic. I’d say it’s safe to say the movie has never looked this good, even in its theatrical prints. There was little or no grain visible, and only the occasional mote of dust. I noticed no digital artifacts of any kind. You’ll not mistake it for a modern release — the film stocks and lenses used in the 1970s just have that look — but the movie has never looked better. The people who digitally remastered the print and who were responsible for the digital compression are all worthy of a standing ovation. The only negatives I can find are that it’s a little too dark at times, and sometimes the flesh tones are a bit too red. But then, both of those quibbles may have been present in the source material. What do I know? I was born the year Jaws was released. I met it on VHS when I was a teenager. I watched it by myself in a darkened room. I had a chip bag in front of me on the floor. It fell over and brushed my leg, and I nearly hit the ceiling. But, I digress.
The controversial 5.1 remix is something that I’ll take to task. It is a typical case of fixing what isn’t broken. Granted, Jaws is an action movie, and action movies can benefit from the added fidelity and the surround environment, but for crying out loud, Universal didn’t remix Conan The Barbarian, so why mess with this classic? The disc I reviewed was the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix. A DTS 5.1 version is also available. The remix does lend higher fidelity to John Williams’ score, and it does give a few moments of ambient sounds in the underwater scenes, but for the most part it is center-channel focused for the dialogue and the sound effects. Dialogue either sounds hollow and wispy, or too close-miked — either way, it sounds out of place with the richer effects and score. Universal should have just left well enough alone, or at least given viewers the choice between the bastardized remix and the authentic mono track.
Extras consist of the condensed documentary, a selection of deleted scenes and outtakes, a trivia game, text describing varieties of real sharks, photos and storyboards, theatrical trailers, and a Windows screensaver. The making-of documentary…well, it’s not like Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, where all you’re missing is the water. It’s quite obvious that the meat and noodles of this documentary are absent. There is plenty of information, but it moves at such a rapid pace from clip to clip that it’s quite obvious that there is material missing. The trivia game consists of twelve questions. Perhaps as a nod to the über-successful “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire,” each question has a “lifeline,” which will take you to the place in the movie or supplemental materials where you will find the answer. Your prize for completing all twelve questions is a viewing of Jaws exploding into sushi lover’s delight. Other than the storyboards (which I always find very interesting), the rest of the extras are fairly disposable.
I’m reluctant to speak ill of Jaws. You’d be surprised (well, maybe not) at how touchy film geeks can be when you tread on the toes of their favorite films. Jaws is a work of fine craftsmanship, but it will never hold a place in my heart like some of Steven Spielberg’s other movies. Sure, I’m glad I can add it to my collection, but it only makes the lack of Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade in the rack alongside it all that much more apparent. But, that’s just a personal note I’m sharing with you, my readers. It does not reflect any ill will against the movie itself.
What I am disappointed by is Universal’s treatment of the disc. Why only half of the documentary? Why is the original mono track not included as well? Why increase the “goodies score” with extras that aren’t all that special? What does Spielberg have against commentary tracks? Why not include a running text-based commentary, not unlike that on Ghostbusters or The Abyss? It’s not like the material isn’t out there; I found reams of information about the making of Jaws while researching this review.
Maybe it’s just the summer heat that’s making me cranky, but it seems to me that if Universal was going to go three-quarters of the way with this release, they should have gone all the way. It should have been dressed to the nines, a full-blown special edition that would leave reviewers’ (and purchasers’) jaws on the floor (okay, so the pun was intended). Owners of the laserdisc special edition should be crying their elitist asses off, ready to burn their discs in effigy. Instead, you just gave them an extra reason to be happy they didn’t gamble them away on eBay. For shame.
Jaws is a classic, and deserves to be among the pantheon of horror and suspense greats. It’s a worthy addition to your collection for that reason alone, but Universal’s only almost-there presentation does not allow me to call it a must-buy.
While I’m donning my asbestos pants to retard the flames from my laserdisc comments, I should point out that I’m only jealous that I could never afford to buy a laserdisc player when such things were in vogue. Please don’t hurt me.