Synopsis: Shark ruining tourists’ summer at Amity Island.
Jaws is a movie about thousands of human fools hellbent on hurling themselves into the maw of a most pernicious and terrifying thing. I am not talking about filth-ridden portable public toilets. Rather, I am speaking of a much older menace: the SHARK.
Director Steven Spielberg’s 1975 movie is both a spectacular thriller and a great PSA. The message: Sharks are killers that live in the ocean/ If you go into the ocean/ A shark will eat you. This is something that you think anyone not living under a rock would be aware of, but all around the world people flock to the beaches for holiday or a day off and literally run into the sea. Yes, I understand that summers are hot, but there is such a thing as air conditioning. And swimming pools have been around since Ancient Rome. In modern times, we have the miracle of the inflatable pool. I would sooner douse myself with a bucket of cold water than enter the shark’s home: aka, any ocean.
Jaws arrived in U.S. theaters in July of 1975 to graphically demonstrate what a carnivore the length of an SUV, with a mouth full of veritable knives could do to human flesh. Millions of moviegoers screamed in surprise at the audacity of a shark who chomped on not just fish, but slow, fatty humans as well. Even though one cannot blame the shark, the humans in the movie (and ppl IRL) are pretty foolish to go into the ocean, splashing and thrashing about like fish in distress.
In the film, Amity Island is where the foolish humans go to seemingly offer themselves up as shark meals. Thousands of revelers crowd the beaches, rush to the sea and clumsily swim away from shore, all in the name of summer fun. These early shots establish that humans, eons from their watery origins, are no longer equipped to handle sharks’ watery realm: no gills to pull oxygen from the water, no fins to slice through the surf.
Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), the island’s new police chief understands that a person’s place is on land. One resident teases the chief about not even wanting to get on a boat. Sounds sensible to me. Initially, Brody and his wife, Ellen are enthusiastic about getting away from the big city police department for a sleepy little resort town. And everything would be fine if the townspeople and the tourists wouldn’t tempt any sharks by cavorting in the surf.
The first victim is a young woman who gets the insane notion to run away at top speed from the late night bonfire party she is at, barrel into the dark waters and make a chewy sacrifice of herself to any sea beastie looking for dinner.
When the police find the missing person, or at least part of her, washed up on the beach the next day, the medical examiner makes a quick determination that she was the victim of a shark attack. Chief Brody leaps into action and has ‘No Swimming’ signs posted all over the beaches.
But the mayor quickly objects; Hey, maybe a boat propeller killed her. And we don’t want people panicking. Right, a nice, big shark jaw-shaped propeller. And, actually, yes, the people should panic and keep far away from the water, where, as I mentioned before, they do not belong anyway. I mean, flames throw off toasty warmth and mesmerizing shades of red and orange, but you know enough to not stride into it.
Back to the fools… so the mayor insists on keeping the beaches open, but there are rumors flying of a shark attack. The beaches are packed and Chief Brody does the best he can, stationing lookouts and planting himself on the beach to look out fixedly at the ocean for shark fins. Meanwhile the mayor strides around in a 1970’s version of a carnival barker suit and
enjoins forces one of his cronies to limp into the water to demonstrate that there is nothing to be afraid of; like lemmings the landlubbers head into the waves. Well… I don’t want to give anything away, but when Spielberg uses the famous forward tracking, zoom out technique, aka the Jaws Shot, you can bet that someone is not going to make it out of the water.
Before you can yell “Shark!” mobs of out-of-staters set out on all manner of water craft with dynamite and rifles to destroy the human-killing fish; Hey, we’re supposed to be eating you fish, not you eating us! Brody tries to keep order and quickly joins forces with a newly arrived shark expert, Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) from “the Institute.” Hooper quickly determines that the killer shark is that most terrifying of all sharks: the Great White. He delivers his lines in a rabid, over-acting manner while strenuously polishing his “I’m A Scholar” spectacles. I was too scared to note the particulars, but this leviathan is basically diner-sized with the mouth-span of a refrigerator. And lots and lots of ginormous, slicey teeth.
The crafty shark eludes everyone and the clock is ticking. Before long s/he will get hunger pangs and cruise back, close to shore for some idiot who won’t stay out of the water. The mayor is chain smoking and sweating through his anchor-emblazoned suit jacket when he decides that if the summer season is to be salvaged at all, he’ll have to pay a salty old bastard named Quint (Robert Shaw) a premium to find and kill the shark who seems to have no plans to vacate the Amity Island area.
Quint is quite the character, aka a real S.O.B. He’s big and burly and wears fish-grease stained denims. He rails about doing things his way and boasts about his prowess on the seas and his implied dominion over its beasts. Uh, paging Captain Ahab…
Chief Brody insists on accompanying Quint and bringing along Hooper. When the chief gets to the docks to set off in Quint’s old tub of a boat, his wife worries over whether he’s brought along all he’ll need for the venture while Quint prepares the boat and sings menacing sea shanties and spews dirty limericks. A look of dismay sweeps over the wife’s face and then she turns away: I thought the shark was bad, but at least they’re not a cretinous misogynist.
Not to worry, Brody can handle Quint even if he doesn’t know the first thing about boating. Hooper does know a lot about boating, I guess, because we see him tying fancy rope knots and he takes a turn at piloting the boat. But Quint hates his guts because he is a college boy who uses the Latin names for sharks.
Now, we’ve only gotten glimpses of the shark’s sail-sized dorsal fin, so the suspense is really building. Occasionally, one of them will spot the shark and try to hook, harpoon or shoot the creature. I know that this is a very bad fish who eats people, but I can really see how the thing is getting not only agitated with the men, but downright resentful. Meanwhile the boat looks less sea-worthy every minute.
One night they have a little break after dinner and indulge in some of Quint’s hearty supply of booze. Brody is just mellow, Hooper is giggly and Quint is boisterous; they even seem to be bonding as they sing together. Unwittingly, Hooper breaks the mood and, after comparing scars, asks Quint about a tattoo on his arm. Quint sobers up and tells him it’s the name of the ship he served on in WWII, the U.S.S. Indianapolis. Hooper looks aghast, but Brody is just a clueless-looking chump like the rest of the audience. Well, those of the audience who don’t know their military and mass shark-attack history, that is. Quint then delivers a hair-raising tale that should be more than enough to remind audiences why they shouldn’t get in the water. Or join the Navy. Or Coast Guard. Or local sculling team. Or anything that might get you tipped into the drink, as any one-legged sailor would also tell you.
Jaws, nearly fifty years from its premiere, still manages to be scary. Sure, it shows its age with 1) the opening scene, an offensive cliché of a comely young woman being victimized, 2) the men in town being in all of the decision-making positions and 3) Bruce, the mechanical shark, whose ilk have been overtaken by CGI sharks for realism… but Spielberg bursts out of the gate with a story of non-stop suspense and a first-rate cast led by Roy Scheider as the laconic, thoroughly decent police chief with a whole town to keep safe. And his job would be a lot easier if the humans would stay out of the water, but then we wouldn’t have such great summer entertainment.