That Seriously Pissed-Off Shark Is Back: 'Jaws'

Steven Spielberg used a shark the way Herman Melville used a whale, transforming it from special effect into metaphor.


Director: Steven Spielberg
Distributor: Universal
Release date: 2012-08-14

I’m writing this review during Shark Week, an annual ritual celebrating what’s alleged to be the perfect killing machine. How bizarre. We actually know that human beings are nature’s perfect assassin, cold and clear-eyed in their malice in a way that a shark could never really be.

And yet, we love the yearly bacchanal centered on the idea of terror beneath the waves. Media accounts of shark attacks provoke excitement all out of proportion to their likelihood and frequency. Murderous and monstrous, sharks have become pop culture icons, rumors of dread and nightmares that periodically make us literally afraid to go back into the water.

Its no exaggeration to suggest that much of the explanation for this goes to a '70s B-movie plot that had a lavish studio budget, an extraordinary cast, a director just beginning to create one of the most diverse and imaginative bodies of work in film history and a mechanical shark that wouldn’t work.

More than 35 years later, Universal Studios has unleashed Jaws on Blu-ray, giving us not only a transfer but a full digital restoration of the consuming horror from beneath. We get to visit the summer of 1975 and the premier of this new kind of monster movie. Director Steven Spielberg didn’t give us a giant insect created by radioactivity. This was no massive ape or prehistoric behemoth. He used a shark the way Herman Melville used a whale, transforming it from special effect into metaphor.

Jaws, for all its drive-in theatre ancestry, deployed no cheap jump scares. We don’t see much of the threat that rips and tears the tourists and townies of Amity island in Spielberg’s masterpiece. The camera lingers on the brooding sea and its depths. The emptiness of the horizon darkening over the bay mirrors the emptiness of the creature’s eyes.

The shark became the monster and the monster embodied hostile nature itself. Creature features, it turns out, could chant poetry about death.

Part of what makes this film work so well is that there is no romance, no significant town intrigues, no subtexts or side notes about life in Amity. Indeed, Amity Island grounds to a halt because of one simple fact: a murderous, organic machine overwhelms all else. The name of the film in its American release said it all. This was the story of Jaws, the creature and the murderous act and the terror inspired by both becoming the hypertext of the whole film.

The brilliance of this film emerges from its impromptu, ad hoc nature. It’s as if we are seeing a Roger Corman film with enormous production values. Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss were given the freedom to ad lib lines. Spielberg himself was drawing the storyboards. Filming in the Atlantic Ocean, making use of walkie-talkies, the struggles with the mechanical shark that refused to cooperate, all created a legend as well as a movie.

“Summer Blockbuster” is now used for more or less every big budget studio release. Jaws may have been the first. There had been big films that came before, of course. Gone with the Wind had been an event movie and The Exorcist had been its own kind of explosive, horrific phenomena in 1974.

But Jaws became the first film ever to be released in over four hundred theatres at the same time. It appeared on the front of Time magazine. Before Star Wars made it de rigueur, the story of the undersea serial killer generated an enormous pile of merchandise. Not even close to old enough to see it in theatres, I still had the iconic t-shirt.

Jaws also became one of the first films at the center of an aggressive media campaign. Its easy to forget how important the television ads became in turning the film into a phenomenon, a cultural moment. Percy Rodriguez, a highly skilled voice actor, became the harbinger of doom whose voice, in his words, “went underneath” the visuals. In an interview included in the new release, Rodriguez says he likes to think he contributed to the fear of going back into the water. Listening and watching the ads again, it’s impossible not to agree.

Its no exaggeration to say that the digital restoration of Jaws has created one of the most beautiful revisions of a classic film I’ve ever seen in the format, comparable to Criterion and Kino’s outstanding work on silent era and mid-century masterpieces. Purists sometimes look at a major restoration like this one (especially when its done by Universal) and lament everything from the loss of grain to the artificial nature of the sound repurposing. You’ll be excited to hear that the clean, bright sheen that the restoration displays does nothing to detract from the naturalness of the original prints.

Moreover, it’s worth noting that Spielberg himself puts his imprimatur on the work. A special feature that explores the process has the director praising it fulsomely. Although meant as a kind of monument to Universal’s Centennial efforts to restore its classic films, the documentary fully explores the tedious process of making Jaws look even better than it did for most audiences in the '70s.

We learn, for example, about a process called “wet gating” that cleans grimy negatives. We see colorists reworking the faded palette. The transformation from mono sound to 7.1 surround is also explained. And, by the way, have no worries there. Yes, the analog sound provided a deep, booming soundtrack of terror. The sound repurposing has not changed this and we get anything but an artificial bumping up of the noise. The original texture has been excellently preserved in a way that will renew your appreciation for the original mix of award-winning score, sounds of the sea and human voices strangled by terror.

The wealth of special features includes an outstanding documentary. “The Shark’s Still Working” reiterates all the stories that most movie buffs know about Jaws. The mechanical shark proved problematic to say the least. No one, and lets ponder this a moment, no one had ever filmed a mechanical effects film on the Atlantic Ocean. Scripting problems, a shooting schedule that stretched out into an unimaginable seven months, all made this one of the first films that created widespread popular interest in the “making off” a major masterpiece.

Speaking of which, an older “Making of Jaws” documentary rounds out the best elements of the special features. Some of this repeats but the older feature provides more detail on the selection of the near-perfect cast, as well as more of the story of the Peter Benchley novel that became the basis of the film.

Extended and deleted scenes are not especially thrilling. You’ll find nothing here that makes you wonder why Spielberg sidelined it. There is a scene of the first victim’s hopeful paramour seeing what’s left of the girl he chased down the beach, clothes flying behind them. This could have been effective, though it’s so overacted you’ll understand why it was cut.

Buffs will love some of the archival features. Still shots of French and German lobby cards are stylized and beautiful, with almost an old Hollywood meets nouvelle vague sensibility. You also learn from this feature that the German title for the film was “Teeth of the Sea”. Maybe not the best decision ever.

Jaws reimagined the horror film, mainstreamed terror, influenced a generation of filmmakers and may have, on some level, created the modern film buff. It also gave us, in some way sadly, a creature that became a reflective surface for our most existential terrors, a bait and switch that makes us, the ultimate predator, into the prey.

If you haven’t been back in the water for a while, now's the time to take the plunge.





Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.


New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.


Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.


Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.


New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.


'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.


Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.


Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.


M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.


Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.


JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.


All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.


Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.


Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.


Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.


'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.


Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.


Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.