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It's important to resist blaming Jaws for what it has wrought, and there's no question about it: this is a movie with a lot to answer for. Though it hit theaters in 1975, its release marked the beginning of the end of what we cinephiles think of as "the '70s"; in cinema, "the '70s" started in 1967, with the release of Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate, ambitious and complicated studio films that challenged audiences, electrified critics, and turned a tidy profit. For the next several years, it seemed like a workable blueprint, and because they were still recovering from the collapse of the studio system and frankly didn't know what the hell they were doing, the suits were willing to take risks on mid-level movies that would bring modest returns. Then Jaws happened, and they realized exactly how much money there was to be made.
Given a large, saturation release (as opposed to the slow, platformed rollout more common to studio pictures) and a heavy television ad buy (a rarity back when they were seen as competing media), Jaws became, for all intents and purposes, the first "summer blockbuster." Star Wars followed two summers later, and the paradigm was set: fewer mid-level movies, and more big-budget monsters. Spend more to make more. And if you want to make as much as possible, then your big movies have to appeal to the widest audience possible--which means dumbing them down. Welcome to the '80s, and '90s, and '00s, and now.
What's interesting about Jaws, though, is that it doesn't hold to that shift at all; revisiting it with even the cynicism of a summer 2012 moviegoer is a fool's errand, as the picture's crackerjack craftsmanship, iconic performances, and (yes) fierce intelligence render it utterly irresistible. This is Hollywood genre filmmaking at its finest, and blaming it for the shift in mainstream moviemaking is a clear-cut case of shooting the messenger.
Is there even a point in recapping the plot, as is customary at this point in a review? Jaws has become so firmly embedded in our pop culture consciousness that merely calling up moments, lines, or impressions vividly brings the movie back to the mind's eye. The opening attack, a punishment for sex and drugs that predates slasher movie trends. The Kintner boy's bloody raft washing up on the shore. "This is not a boating accident." Hooper's terrifying midnight dive. "You're gonna need a bigger boat." Quint's calm as he tells the story of the USS Indianapolis. "Smile, you sonofabitch."
We recall the sharp dialogue, the distinctive photography, John Williams's iconic score (a helpful signal as to when our shark is actually on the move), and the big scares. But there's a lot going on in Jaws, much more to unpack underneath its popcorn-movie exterior. There's the rape subtext of that opening attack, in which a vulnerable nude woman is abandoned by a drunken man who can't perform, only to be consumed by a more powerful and dangerous force. There are the Nixonian echoes (Tricky Dick resigned in August 1974, right in the middle of production) of the corrupt, smiling mayor of Amity, who ignores the warnings of the experts in pursuit of "summer dollars," later left to mumble and stammer "I was acting in the town's best interest..." (he might as well be kneeling with Kissinger there).
Most interesting is the film's reflection of subtle cultural shifts in the perception and manifestation of that elusive quality of "manliness." These were not new themes for Spielberg; his breakthrough film, the 1971 TV movie Duel (a film so effective it was expanded and released theatrically abroad), concerns a fussy, bespectacled suit-and-tie type who must prove his mettle by taking on an unseen tough guy behind the wheel of a massive 18-wheeler. In Jaws, we have three points on the masculinity curve: the growling, macho, beer can-crushing Quint on one end, the brainy, rich kid academic (and clear Spielberg surrogate) Hooper on the other, with mild Chief Brody somewhere on the spectrum between them. Quint is the traditional hero, something out of a Peckinpah picture, the old pro they go to get the job done, but he's not always treated with reverence; Hooper's wry comebacks and commentary on the boat frequently turn the tough guy into a straight man. And at the end of the day (spoiler of something that happens in a 36-year-old movie alert), Quint's brutishness and bluster aren't enough. He doesn't make it out alive, while the two revisionist "modern" men--strengthened, perhaps, by his machismo--do. Revenge of the nerds, indeed.
But that's all reading between the lines; the reason Jaws became Jaws is because it's first-rate filmmaking, pure and simple. The fleeting glimpses and sparing use of the shark may have been, as we all know now, the result of the unreliability of the mechanical sharks, but Spielberg was no dummy--his Hitchockian restraint (and reliance on that scary Williams music) is more terrifying than blunt exposure, and if you don't believe me, check out the cheeseball CG sharks of the relentlessly stupid Deep Blue Sea. The picture is a model of efficiency and precision--take, for example, the lazy yet menacing photography of the calm before that second shark attack. The sharp cuts of the kids in the water, the cuts in to Chief Brody timed to the blocking of the passerby, that famous reverse zoom: the whole sequence is like a master class in tension. Hitchcock famously said he liked to "play the audience like a piano," and Spielberg is doing the same thing here; Gardner's head in the hull is still a jump-out-of-your-seat moment (even from a viewer like this one, who's seen the movie literally dozens of times), and the last half hour is as relentless as that great white.
In a film as focused on technique and the delivery of scares, actors must take their moments as they can get them, but they all find and seize on the little character beats: the way Dreyfuss helps himself to dinner at the Brodys' table, the lived-in easiness of Lorraine Gary hopping on the swingset with her son, the way Schneider reacts to that slap in the face from the Kintner boy's mother, and the casualness with which Robert Shaw delivers those numbers at the end of the gripping Indianapolis monologue. Not a lot of actors would be brave enough to undersell and undertell that story--particularly when they're know they're going into a shark's mouth a couple of scenes later.
But that's why Jaws continues to hold up, in a way that its countless imitators and sequels and subsequent summer tentpole brethren never could: it is carefully constructed, energetically acted, and it doesn't presume it is playing to an audience of morons. The same could be said of the movie it displaced as Hollywood's biggest grosser, The Godfather--another adaptation of a trashy bestseller that transcended its lowbrow genre roots and, against all likelihood, transforms itself into an unexpected work of art.
As with most of their 100th anniversary discs, Universal has included a DVD copy of the film with this Blu-ray release; it includes the feature film and the shorter version of the "Making of Jaws" featurette (more on that below). Digital Copies are also included, in both Ultraviolet and iTunes formats.
Video & Audio:
Jaws makes its Blu-ray debut with a great-looking MPEG-4 AVC-encoded restoration and transfer approved by Mr. Spielberg himself. It is a gorgeous image, vibrant and breathtakingly clear (sometimes to a fault--I can't imagine they expected us to have this kind of a view of Chrissie's nether-regions). The ocean blues are bright and beautifully saturated, while several sunsets and sunrises (the drunken suitor in the opening, Quint's silhouette in the second hour) are simply breathtaking. The image is somewhat suspiciously free of grain, but if it got a DNR scrubbing, it's one free of the waxiness of Universal's lesser Blus.
The English 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix is equally impressive, beginning with the rich and full sounds of the Williams score (particularly that scary bass pounding through the LFE channel). Environmental effects are immersive and well-distributed: the Amity harbor, for example, is busy with the sounds of seagulls, horn blasts, and general hustle and bustle. Dialogue reproduction is stellar and the placement of bumps and crashes in the night attack on the Orca are extra scary. Excellent work overall.
A 2.0 DTS mono track is also offered, as are Spanish and French DTS Digital surround mixes. English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are available as well.
Lamentably, Mr. Spielberg has held fast in his refusal to do audio commentary tracks, but that minor quibble aside, Jaws boasts a terrific selection of special features. Chief among them is "The Shark is Still Working: The Impact and Legacy of Jaws" (1:41:21); we've been hearing about this fan-made documentary for years, and it's a treat to finally get a look at it. The film is passionate, entertaining, and exhaustive--they seem to have landed just about every living survivor (and a few that have since passed, including Peter Benchley and Roy Scheider, who is interviewed and also narrates) of the production: Dreyfuss, Spielberg, screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, producers David Brown and Richard D. Zanuck, composer John Williams, Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg, cinematographer Bill Butler, crew members, actors, even Percy Rodrigues (the voice of the trailers). Surprisingly, the production woes only occupy the first 18 minutes of the film; the rest is concerned with the film's reception and subsequent influence over a generation of moviemakers, many of whom are interviewed (Bryan Singer, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, M. Nighty Shyamalan, Eli Roth, and more). A few of the detours are a little silly, but overall, it's an informative and fun feature.
Mention is made within it that film of the other feature-length documentary, "The Making of Jaws" (2:02:48), assembled by special features master Laurent Bouzereau for the film's original laserdisc release back in 1995. It was chopped in half for the original 2000 DVD, then restored to its full length for the "30th Anniversary Edition" re-release; it's not flashy, but it's packed with information, as well as archival footage, home movies, film clips, outtakes, and some truly great stories. There is, obviously, some repetition between the two films (Dreyfuss tells the same story about the radio mics almost verbatim, for example, and some footage of editor Verna Fields at work is seen in both), but they're divergent enough that fans will want to take in both of them.
"Jaws: The Restoration" (8:28) takes a look at the film's preparation for the HD release (from the original negative), with input from Spielberg and the fine folks at Universal. The process is broken down, step by step, with demonstration clips and post-production footage; it's kind of remarkable, really.
The rest of the bonus features are ported over from the original DVDS: a reel of interesting "Deleted Scenes and Outtakes" (13:13 total)--mostly spare ends and run-ons, but entertaining--as well as "From The Set" (8:56), a vintage behind-the-scenes featurette shot in 1974 on Martha's Vineyard and mostly comprised of an interview with the impossibly young Spielberg. The "Jaws Archives" (29:45) collects storyboards, production photos, marketing materials, and other ephemera; that terrific original Theatrical Trailer (3:15) is also included, and for whatever it's worth, the disc is also BD-Live and D-Box enabled.
Universal's Blu-ray of Jaws offers up one of the best mainstream movies of the '70s with a crisp video presentation, killer sound, and copious extras. I'm not sure what else you're looking for here, exactly--this is a must-have disc, plain and simple.
Jason lives in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU.