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