Still Dangerous Waters: ‘Jaws’ 35 Years Later

By  · Published on June 23rd, 2010

One of my favorite films of all time turns 35 this week. An early effort from a then unknown director named Steve Spielberg. It was essentially a low budget monster movie set in a beautiful town near Martha’s Vineyard. It featured a few recognizable faces including an older character actor named Robert Shaw. When it was released, it scared the living daylights out of audiences with its “realistic” portrayal of shark attacks. The film was called Jaws, and its legend and popularity have aged like the finest of wines across these three-and-a-half decades.

Why has the impact of Jaws never waned over such a long time? What makes Jaws so great? I wanted to delve deeper than the limits of my own personal nostalgia, the fond memories of my dad quoting the film to me even before I could speak, and objectively analyze the strengths of this film. But then my mind wandered to the first time I saw it, seated on the stair case while my parents watched in the living room. They had no idea I was there, daring to peak at every other scene but too scared to watch it in its entirety. That memory pulled one thing into sharp focus: if there is one thing Spielberg understands its creating fully-realized, grownup versions of childhood terrors. And that talent is at the heart of what makes Jaws so timeless.

Jaws still works for us because we gradually grew into an appreciation for the trappings and frames Spielberg created for our childhood fears whereas the shark, the object of terror itself, was more than enough to keep our younger selves riveted. I didn’t understand as a child just how incredible was the performance of Robert Shaw. I didn’t understand the conflict between a small town mayor trying to keep the town’s finances solvent and a fish-out-of-water police chief whose sole concern was the lives of his neighbors. Spielberg took what should have been a simple slash-and-bite shark attack film and built around it a fantastic story and a cadre of three-dimensional characters you couldn’t help but love.

Jaws may now be the oldest shark in the pond, but he is nevertheless still a terrifying cinematic predator. But, why? Why is it that as technology has all but eradicated the limitations of special effects gurus, we are still afraid of a completely bogus, admittedly bargain basement Great White? Because Jaws’ terrifying appeal transcends his appearance and is representative of a much larger, much more universal fear. On a psychological level, a fear of Jaws is tantamount to a fear of the unknown.

With all our technological mastery of one frontier after another, we still have no sway over the unconquerable vastness of the oceans. So much is unknown and disputed about the range of wildlife residing in the oceans that there may be a whole host of creatures unseen that would threaten our dominance of the food chain. The reason Jaws is still so effectively horrifying is that the ocean still represents the great unknown and any foray into its waters is an abdication of control. Jaws epitomizes the ultimate worst case scenario in terms of the uncertainty of what awaits us under the waves. This fear is canonized in the tagline for Jaws 2: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.” That trepidation exists no matter how many times Brodie explodes the razor-toothed vessel of this fear because the ocean abides as do the clandestine perils below.

Going back to Robert Shaw for a moment, how freaking great was that guy? Beyond being the model of manhood and the captain of cool, Shaw’s Quint is a modern recasting of Captain Ahab. Quint may not have a vendetta against this particular Great White, but as his icy voice recounts the nightmarish events surrounding the sinking of the S.S. Indianapolis, you can hear the hatred toward these beasts nestled deep within him. That is why that scene continues to give me the shivers to this day. Brodie is an outsider not only to sharking but to sailing altogether and creates the same juxtaposition to Quint as Ishmael did to Ahab. What should have been Hooper’s coffin, the shark cage, ultimately saved his life which again creates an interesting parallel to the Herman Melville opus. The fate of Quint, as agonizing as it is for we the audience, is therefore an inevitable interpretation of Ahab’s demise. In fact, in the original draft of Jaws, Hooper and Brodie meet Quint for the first time in a movie theater that is screening the Moby Dick film starring Gregory Peck; the similarities are not happenstance. The staying power of a film like this needs little more explanation when framed in the context of it being a fable as legendary as Moby Dick…but far less boring.

All of these elements coalesce into one of the most worthy bearers of the word classic. Not only one of the seminal American films of all time, but a true contender for overall best in history. As an added sweetening of the Jaws legacy, though this may be more esoteric praise, it will forever be a herald of the summer. As much as it fosters an association of dread with the ocean and the beach, I cannot help but long for the long, hot days of summer whenever I watch Jaws. As we are presently at the threshold of yet another summer season, my heart again yearns for three men, a boat, and two cello chords announcing certain doom.

Happy Birthday Jaws!

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.