DIRECTOR Steven Spielberg WRITER Peter Benchley; Carl Gottlieb STARS Roy Scheider; Robert Shaw; Richard Dreyfuss BLU-RAY Now
There has been so much written and spoken about Steven Spielberg’s classic monster movie that further discussion concerning its merits seem pointless. The fact is if you’re on the Internet reading a film-themed website the chances are you’ll have seen Jaws. Probably more than once. Its status as a landmark event in the history of motion pictures is rightly deserved, and as the film that ushered in the era of the modern summer blockbuster it has much to answer for. Does it deserve to be talked about within the horror genre? Absolutely. Jaws is a genuinely terrifying film, with the power to shock and awe still strong 37 years after its release.
It’s fitting that this came from Universal Pictures, as it follows the structure of the classic black-and-white chillers from the 1930s and ’40s that became the studio’s greatest hits of that period: monster attacks community; people die; heroes attack monster to save the town. Simple stuff adapted from a popular but poor pulp novel, and Jaws could easily have become yet another standard creature feature. But the success of the film lies with Spielberg, then in his late twenties and with a few TV credits and one feature to his name, who grasped the material and, as he freely admits, with the foolishness of youth decided that there was nothing he wasn’t prepared to try, even so far as filming in the ocean as opposed to a backlot tank. Jaws was also the first showcase for Spielberg’s incredible skill as a filmmaker. With a relatively low budget and a remote-controlled rubber shark that kept sinking, he needed other ways to make the fish frightening. By combining point-of-view cinematography with tight editing and scenes that depict the aftermath of the attacks — Hooper examining the body of the first victim is particularly effective — and of course that truly iconic John Williams score, we are terrified of this monster before we even see it. And when Spielberg does provide a reveal, the job is already done. You fear the shark because the seed of horror is already planted. Never could one imagine that three simple barrels popping up to the surface of the ocean would be so threatening.
At the heart of Jaws though, like all great film works, is characterisation. Roy Scheider’s twitchy, nervous police chief Martin Brody is a man out of his depth; a big city cop afraid of water who has relocated to the peaceful community of Amity Island, much to the bemusement of the locals and the mayor, who clashes with Brody over lost revenue due to beach closures when the attacks happen. Richard Dreyfuss is rich oceanographic playboy Hooper, called on by Brody to offer some scientific balance in the wake of the panic and revenge that follows the killer fish attacks. And best of all, Robert Shaw as the fisherman Quint, a grizzled old sea dog the actor plays without cliché. A man who, like Melville’s Ahab, is obsessed with the destruction of the beast, and in perhaps one of the greatest speeches in the history of cinema, reveals exactly why. It’s arguably career-best work from all three.
It’s a film of legendary moments: the opening midnight swim and attack; Brody screaming for people to get out of the water with the coda of the child’s punctured inflatable washing up on the beach; the head coming out of the sunken boat; Hooper in the cage; Quint’s aforementioned tale of the doomed USS Indianapolis; and the final sinking of the Orca with one of the greatest pay-off lines in cinema: “Smile you son-of-a-bitch!” Jaws is responsible for dozens of film careers, for a thousand nightmares, for millions of kids venturing no further than ankle-deep into the ocean. It’s one of the few movies that has crossed over into the general consciousness.
Despite all that, is it worth updating your VHS/DVD copies for this latest high-definition version? Simply put: yes. In fact if you’ve been considering dipping your toe into the waters of Blu-ray there could not be a better reason. As one of the many extras on the disc shows, every frame of Jaws has been painstakingly cleaned, adjusted and polished for the 21st century, and the results are astonishing. As Spielberg himself notes, it’s unlikely the film looked this good on its first 35mm screening back in 1975. Every glint of sunlight on water, every crack in the paint of the doomed Orca, has been given a digital shine but without losing the beauty of the original 35mm Panavision negative. The new 7.1 Dolby sound mix is also a revelation, revealing snippets of conversation previously lost, offering new depths to Williams’ theme and providing a brilliant surround experience that virtually puts you in the water. The original mono and stereo tracks are included for completists, but why would you bother when the aural workout is this good. This is the disc you’ll be showing off your home cinema system with.
The other major inclusion exclusive to Blu-ray is the feature-length documentary The Shark Is Still Working, originally completed in 2009 but only now seeing release outside of film festivals. Narrated by Scheider and made by a group of obsessive fans over a seven-year period, it’s a superb insight into the struggles of production and the huge success and legacy of the film, with interviews from all principal cast members (save for Shaw, who passed in 1978), major crew including Spielberg, and fans including Kevin Smith, Greg Nicotero and Robert Rodriguez. Filled with rare footage and outtakes, it offers just about everything you’ll ever need to know. Following this is a huge collection of special features which have previously been included in other editions: another extensive making-of; deleted scenes; the digital restoration and a mass of promotional material; trailers; posters; and press releases. Sadly there’s no commentary from Spielberg, but this is nothing unusual; the bearded one has never talked over his work. To this writer Jaws remains one of the finest movies ever made, and this release is the definitive document, and as such is recommended without reservation.