45 Years of Jaws: How Spielberg and his Shark Feasted on the Audience’s Fears

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There exists a universal rule that filmmakers adhere to when creating some of the best films we’ve ever seen: “show, don’t tell.” After all, film is a predominantly visual medium, so it only makes sense that impactful images stick with audiences for far longer than any poignant dialogue ever could.

Granted, this maxim of cinema is not set in stone, and some filmmakers have successfully managed to bend it. Sure, the name of Steven Spielberg is now a benchmark in the movie business, but in 1975, the young filmmaker was just beginning to dip his toes into the world of cinema.

That is the year when Spielberg released what’s come to be recognized as one of the best films in his collection: Jaws. The film tells the story of the small, idyllic community of Amity Island, just as it is besieged by a giant man-eating shark.

At its heart, Jaws is the story of a sheriff tasked with standing against an unstoppable force of nature. If we take that premise to heart, we could certainly say that sheriff Brody’s mission is doomed from the beginning. And yet, he perseveres.

The fight of humanity against nature is just one of the many elements sprinkled all over the deceptively simple premise of Jaws. Spielberg didn’t just make a classic horror movie; he introduced nuanced storytelling elements that elevate Jaws way above the usual summer blockbuster.

This 2020 marks the 45th anniversary of Jaws’ release, and the movie is still as fresh now as it was back when it was initially released. What Spielberg created was the blueprint successful monster movies draw inspiration from; and it was all because the damn shark would not work.

In 1975, Steven Spielberg was just a 27-year-old aspiring filmmaker with only two feature films under his belt. He was chosen (against his will; he wanted to direct the film Lucky Lady) by Universal Studios head Sid Sheinberg to direct the movie. Spielberg believed that the movie was doomed to failure, but much like Sheriff Brody, he persevered.

Jaws is a movie about a giant shark, so of course, the production needed to figure out how to create a realistic-looking shark to star in their film. Art director Joe Alves was tasked with creating a mechanical shark that could be submerged and whose movements didn’t look overly janky, like most of the animatronics of the time.

Sure, creating a believable animatronic was one thing, but submerging it in saltwater is akin to a death sentence for a machine. The shark – nicknamed Bruce by the team and Great White Turd by Spielberg – presented a myriad of malfunctions whenever it was submerged.

It quickly became evident to Spielberg that they would have to work around the limitations imposed by the mechanic shark; that’s where the magic of Jaws resides. Considering that the shark would malfunction almost in every scene it was in, Spielberg decided that the shark would remain obscured for a great length of the film.

This is where Jaws bends the rule of “show, don’t tell”; the very shark the movie is about is hardly ever seen. But here’s the catch: by mostly keeping its monster in the shadowy depths of the deep blue sea, Jaws feasts on mankind’s common fear of the unknown.

People with thalassophobia (an intense fear of the sea) dread the vast openness of the ocean; the seemingly infinite blue that’s below us whenever we decide to swim in the open sea. 

Now, imagine for a second that you go out for a swim and see a shark. The initial shock might paralyze you, regress you into your basic responses of fight-or-flight. As you ponder what to do, an unseen force pulls you from below, deep down into the abyss. The unseen can be scarier than what we can see and rationalize, and that’s where Jaws shines the most.

Spielberg had struck gold the moment he decided to hide the shark from the audience’s view. We as an audience know that there’s a shark in the water; what we don’t know is how it looks, how big it is, or even where it is. As far as we know, as soon as we enter the water, the shark is underneath us and all around us.

Of course, there’s another crucial element of Jaws that captures audiences even to this day. As we mentioned before, film is a predominantly visual medium, but it’s also an auditory one. The score of the film, composed by the legendary John Williams, is as worthy of discussion as the film itself.

Everyone has heard the main theme from Jaws, even if it’s by social osmosis. Those first cello notes are enough to keep anyone from enjoying a day at the beach, and it’s worth mentioning that Williams masterfully adapts the score to the themes of the film.

At first, Jaws plays like a slasher film: a killer goes around on a killing spree, disposing of everyone in his path. When Brody and his companions decide to hunt the shark, the movie abruptly changes its tone: it becomes an adventure film.

The score reflects this tonal shift, going from deep cellos and trombones to pieces we can expect to find in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars. At the end of the day, Jaws becomes a film where the heroes have to face down evil, and just as it happens in most Spielberg movies, good prevails.

Four and a half decades have passed since Jaws first stalked swimmers and tinted the shores of Amity Island in red. Even if “Bruce” looks a little less convincing now than it did in 1975, the fear it produces in audiences remains very much alive.

Steven Spielberg would go on to become, well, Steven Spielberg. His films are still some of cinema’s most emotional love letters and have captivated generations of moviegoers. It’s surreal to think that someone who directed Schindler’s List could create such an effective horror/adventure flick, and yet, here it is.

The magic of Jaws still haunts the waters of movie monsters, and every film featuring sharks since 1975 has had to compete against Bruce. Sharks still fascinate and scare us, and Jaws will always be the reason why we always check before getting into the pool.

Here’s to almost half a century of Jaws, a film that’s inspired filmmakers everywhere to bend the rules of conventional cinema. But, perhaps, more importantly, the lesson that the characters in the film, Steven Spielberg, and every aspiring filmmaker should preserve from watching Jaws, is to always (even in the face of danger or a giant malfunctioning shark) persevere.

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