Three Reasons Why I Love Jaws
By Andrew J. Douglas, Ph.D., BMFI Director of Education
Jaws (1975) is impressive, like its antagonist, because it is efficient, it never stops moving, and it forever changed the way we look at its kind. But I love it for all the movies it made possible over the last thirty-six years.
How much should fans of mainstream cinematic entertainment love Jaws? Let me count the ways:
1. While it wasn’t Steven Spielberg’s first theatrical film, the success of Jaws made the director’s subsequent career possible. This means, if you’re among the multitudes who love Close Encounters of the Third Kind, any of the Indiana Jones movies, E.T., Jurassic Park, Saving Private Ryan, Minority Report, Catch Me If You Can, or War of the Worlds, you owe a debt of gratitude to Jaws. But it’s not that simple, because even though they’re smaller films, if Spielberg hadn’t made these blockbusters, he wouldn’t have had the clout to make The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun, Schindler’s List, Amistad, or Munich. Furthermore, without this success, his name/role as producer wouldn’t have been sufficient to “greenlight” Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Men in Black, Transformers, or Super 8. So, if you like any of these films, thank Mr. Spielberg, and his mechanical shark that couldn’t.*
2. Summer used to be the last time of year a studio would release a big budget movie. The conventional wisdom used to be to open big pictures around holidays and/or on a few screens, so critical acclaim and word of mouth could build a potential audience. Jaws changed all this by opening on hundreds of screens at once, and not relying on/hoping for support from critics, and the result completely altered the industry’s perception of the potential profit for such a film. While this move to increasingly expensive, wide-release, (summer) tent-pole productions has certainly produced some negative results [e.g. Godzilla (1998), Transformers 2], without it, audiences would have been denied such thoughtful crowd-pleasers as The Dark Knight, such bold financial gambles as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and such technologically ambitious works as Terminator 2: Judgment Day and Avatar.
|Roy Scheider as Chief Brody and Robert Shaw as Quint team up with a shark specialist (played by Richard Dreyfuss) to track down the giant great white shark terrorizing Amity Island in Jaws.|
3. Jaws was one of the earliest and most successful examples of a high-concept film. Essentially, such a movie is one that is extremely saleable because of the simplicity of its premise and the potency of its imagery. So, without the success of Jaws (massive killer shark terrorizes summer beach town), we might never have had such entertaining films as:
a. Beverly Hills Cop (A wiseacre Detroit cop goes to Beverly Hills.)
b. Jurassic Park (We can clone dinosaurs. Let’s open an amusement park.)
c. Ghostbusters (Wiseacre “scientists” fight ghosts. Hilarity ensues.)
d. The Sixth Sense (A precocious child sees dead people.)
e. Armageddon (An asteroid is hurtling towards earth, and we’ve just got to blow it up.)
f. Top Gun (Tom Cruise is a fighter pilot who plays by his own rules.)
g. The Firm (Tom Cruise is a Harvard-educated lawyer who plays by his own rules.)**
h. A Few Good Men (Tom Cruise is another Harvard-educated lawyer who plays by his own rules.)**
* The mechanical shark, nicknamed “Bruce” (after Spielberg’s attorney at the time, Bruce Ramer), was notorious for its frequent breakdowns and very sporadic performance. These challenges necessitated (or facilitated) Spielberg making the film much more suspenseful than horrific—a quality that many people consider to be at the core of the film’s appeal and success.
**I’m sort of joking with these last two, but you get the idea.
Dr. Douglas received his Ph.D. from the Department of Radio/Television/Film at Northwestern University. He will introduce BMFI's 35mm screening of Jaws on Tuesday, August 16 at 7:00pm. If you want to learn more about the film, he's also teaching a Summer Classics Seminar about Jaws, starting at 6:30pm.