Sunday, June 21, 2015

Zaki's Retro Review: Jaws (1975)

Forty years ago this weekend, the age of the modern blockbuster was born when Steven Spielberg's Jaws was unleashed into a few hundred theaters across the country. That theater count may seem positively piddly in today's age of ultra-wide, thousand-screen releases, but at the time it was one of the widest in history. And while that might have seemed like a tremendous gamble for any other film, Universal Studios had the goods to back it up.

Obviously history tends to put these sorts of things in perspective, and the fact that we're here four decades later celebrating its remarkable lasting accomplishment is proof enough that Jaws worked. Boy, did it work. Based on the bestselling tome by author Peter Benchley, Universal bet heavily that the untried director (who at the time had only one credit to his name) could bring to life the book's harrowing story about a coastal town bedeviled by attacks from a great white shark.

I wasn't around for the initial release, of course, but I wonder what it was like when audiences saw that opening scene for the first time. The stark title card, the ominous John Williams music queue, a young woman pulled underwater and devoured by an unseen assailant. It's as powerful today as ever. The reason Jaws is still so effective is that it speaks to fears that are real. Not just fear of sharks, but fear of water, fear of drowning, fear of making the wrong decision at wrong time. These are things anyone can relate to.

In addition, there's the taut, tension-filled script (by Benchley himself), and the equal-parts chilling and heroic music score by Williams (just one more arrow in his quiver of indelible movie themes). And of course the casting of the three leads, Roy Scheider as everyman Martin Brody, the landlubber sheriff forced to face his greatest fear, Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Matt Hooper, and Robert Shaw as Quint, the ornery seaman who sees capturing the shark as a higher calling. The bond they form with each other and with us in the audiences is key to its success.

Somewhat paradoxically, despite how truly timeless Jaws remains, it's also very much a product of its time. It couldn't have been made today and still be the same experience. Not only because of advances in CGI technology and the like, but also because it emerged during the heart of the auteur movement, an outgrowth of the success of such films as Easy Rider, which that gave an inordinate amount of sway to directors, even on high profile studio pictures. It was a model that paid dividends for Paramount on The Godfather, and Fox with The French Connection earlier in the decade, and it would pay off handsomely with Jaws.

As such, the man who rightly deserves the lion's share of credit is Spielberg. Just twenty-seven at the when he signed on, Spielberg's feature debut, The Sugarland Express, was still in production at the time, and his hire marked a pretty big risk for producers Richard Zanuck & David Brown (who'd preemptively purchased the rights to Benchley's book before it was even published, and watched it become a best-seller). Still, far more than even Francis Coppolla and William Friedkin before him, Spielberg had an uncanny, almost preternatural knack for finding the precise way to tell a story -- which he brought to bear on the shark tale.

In an indication of how fortune favors the foolish, he was just inexperienced enough to be willing to take the production onto open water to shoot its climactic third act rather than confine himself to a studio tank. Sure, this rendered the actual filming process a nightmare of tedium and budget overruns, especially once the mechanical shark they'd engineered to play the title character kept crapping out in the water, but there's no denying that all that effort is entirely evident on-screen. It's no surprise that Jaws quickly became the top grosser of all time shortly after its release.

Interestingly enough, while Spielberg's selection to direct was very much an outgrowth of the auteur movement, the through-the-roof reception accorded Jaws at the box office was arguably one of the key factors in eventually ending it. After the kind of sustained grosses Jaws commanded, with audiences watching, re-watching, and re-watching again, the notion of film-as-product truly began to take root. Jaws would hold onto its "biggest of all time" title for two years, when a little movie called Star Wars showed up and by all accounts did alright.

As for Jaws, naturally it wasn't too long before Universal would attempt to spin the Benchley book into franchise gold, unleashing a sequel in 1978. But with Spielberg and Dreyfuss off making Close Encounter of the Third Kind, director Jeannot Szwarc stepped in to helm Jaws 2. While by all accounts it was an altogether miserable experience for returning star Roy Scheider, who really didn't want to be there (he would later re-team with Spielberg for an entirely different underwater endeavor), I think it's probably the best Jaws sequel you were going to get without Spielberg behind the camera calling "Action."

Behind-the-scenes kerfuffles notwithstanding, Jaws 2 garnered another solid return for Universal (albeit to a lesser extent), and they'd end up cranking out two more follow-ups over the next decade. While it's a coin toss as to which is worse, Jaws 3D or Jaws: The Revenge, I won't bother befouling this otherwise positive piece trying to parse that particular difference. Still, subpar sequels or no, the fact is that even after so long, the original has lost none of its allure. With compelling characters, high-tension storyline, and top-drawer direction, it's as perfect today as when it was released. In fact, you might say it's Quint-essential.

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