John William’s legendary foreboding score creates one of the most atmospheric openings in cinema. The tone is set. The visuals from the POV of ‘Jaws’ as it stalks its next victim, defines the main driver of the film’s terror would not be the shark itself, but rather the unseen.
Initially, the film was to be driven by the realistic looking shark props – hence why three were made at the value of $150,000 each. However, failure to take note of the affect sea water might have on a remote controlled, electronic shark resulted in a plague of issues delaying production by around 6 months. This was a blessing in disguise for classic horror fans, and Spielberg’s career, as it required a great deal more thought and planning in order to ensure the film was still as effective as when first planned.
In short, Spielberg succeeded. The first death occurs immediately after the opening credits; akin to an ITV3 repeat of Lewis or Midsummer Murders. The audience quickly realises that this is not going to be a typical camp-Hollywood horror film which had defined the colour screen age as we see a dimly lit skinny-dipper dragged beneath the surface by an unseen force as her friend passes out on the beach. The victim is helpless, and much like space, has no-one to hear her scream.
The plot delivers itself simply, quickly establishing the hero as the local cop with a fear of water (yet works on an island) and those unwilling to close the beaches in case the town misses out on its busiest period over the Fourth of July holiday, namely the local mayor. At this point, the film could be in danger of slipping into stereotypical Hollywood; the wealthy mayor willing to subvert the safety of his people in order to make money and the hero being a family man police officer who needs to face up to his fears to save the day. Despite this, the film does well to keep itself fresh, creating new tropes of its own such as Robert Shaw’s long monologues which create an area of mystery around the troubled sea captain with a penchant for sharks.
The rest of the cast is also strong, Roy Scheider as Martin Brody puts in a convincing performance trying to convince the town of the dangers of the killer shark.
(Below: An explanation of the infamous 'dolly zoom' shot , used to great effect in Jaws)
The second half of the film is mainly taken up by the third act with the hunting of the shark which tonally is quite different than the first half. This, at times, does feel like it drags slightly although this does make the ending slightly more effective. The chemistry of the three men in isolation in the middle of the ocean is very compelling, especially considering the rumours that Robert Shaw was often drunk, and came to blows with Richard Dreyfuss. The unseen terror established earlier in the film is what makes this act. The audience is still yet to see the killer shark properly, and the “you're gonna need a bigger boat” reveal is rightfully one of cinemas most iconic moments.
It deserves its place in popular culture.
It is truly a genre defining film of its generation, and one that can be declared timeless thanks to Spielberg’s problem-solving skills. It would not be as effective with a 1970s CGI shark in every scene, that’s for sure.