On ‘Jaws’ and the unique pleasures of the summer blockbuster — Ultimate Movie Year

Ultimate Movie Year finds the best released films from weekends past to build an all-star lineup of cinema.

“Jaws”
Released June 20, 1975
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Where to Watch

We need to talk about summer movies, often considered the savior and bane of the film industry.

High-concept, big-budgeted movies marketed to the broadest audience possible tend to elicit scoffs from critics, and for a good reason. These movies have increasingly forsaken originality for familiarity, investing in tent-poled franchises that pump out derivative sequel and spinoffs. For the studios and producers, profitability is the goal, and quality is more of a happy accident. If watching multiple movies a week is your job, or you’re a consumer paying to take your family to the theater, you can quickly see how the relentless march of blockbuster IP is exhausting.

And yet, when that happy accident happens, and you’re in the theater surrounded by people, all fully engaged in the spectacle happening onscreen and reacting as one communal being, is nearly unbeatable as an experience. As the covid-19 pandemic has shuttered theaters across the world and delayed many high-profile projects, I can’t be the only one who feels the loss of sitting in a dark auditorium with other fans to enjoy two to three hours of escapist entertainment.

As a child of the late 70s and the 80s, I spent most of my youth absorbing a sustained period of imaginative, original mass-market entertainment: “Star Wars,” “Alien,” “Mad Max,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Blade Runner,” “Ghostbusters,” “Gremlins,” “Back to the Future.” These were great movies that eventually turned into never-ending franchises, but at the moment, they felt like seismic events in my life. I would eventually grow to learn about, appreciate, and love all kinds of cinema, but when it comes down to it, going to see a popular movie with a big bucket of popcorn with other enthusiasts remains the elusive high that I keep chasing. The original conception of the Ultimate Movie Year was to celebrate these films while figuring out the best summer blockbusters, week-by-week.

And that all started with “Jaws.”

Set in the picturesque summer resort town of Amity Island, “Jaws” begins with a college beach party. A young man and woman escape to go skinny-dipping, but while the man passes out drunk on the beach, the woman is killed in a gruesome shark attack. Amity Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) attempts to close the beach until he can further investigate the incident. With the island’s profitable Independence Day celebration that week, he is met with resistance from Amity’s leadership. However, Sharks don’t care about economics and continue to feast on swimmers until Brody heads out into the ocean with the grizzled hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to kill the creature once and for all.

Based on the 1974 novel of the same name, “Jaws” was director Steven Spielberg’s third feature film, but easily the most ambitious up until that point in his career. The second half of the movie occurs on the ocean water, and Spielberg decided to film the action directly on location instead of a studio set. It was the first time a production ever filmed out in the ocean, and it created several problems that led to the movie being behind schedule and over budget.

“It was a very exciting movie to make,” Spielberg said in a 1975 interview with Eye on Camera. “It was a frightening film to make. Most of the fear came from because it was a physical production. We were out in the water with big waves, trying to keep the camera boats, the generator boats, and the lighting boats … everything had to be anchored down 30 feet to the bottom. Keeping all that situation and trying to hold composition, because I’m a stickler when it comes to composed frames, I found you can’t really compose much. We averaged about 35 seconds of film (a day).”

Another problem was the diva behavior of the title character. The production built a mechanical shark for filming but didn’t prepare the equipment for saltwater, which led to numerous breakdowns. Spielberg was forced to improvise and filmed his scenes around the problems, keeping the shark off-screen as much as possible. The result made the shark more threatening as an unseen menace. Of course, it helps that Spielberg recruited composer John Williams to craft a two-note theme intro, beginning a seven-year run by the musician to create the most famous film scores of all time.

While nobody can deny Spielberg’s talent as a filmmaker, to have this much talent and ability to pivot around the production problems by his third film is astounding, with two moments, in particular, that stand out to me. The first is early on when Brody is supervising the populated beach. He’s intensely focused on seeing signs of a shark, as Spielberg causally introduces several nameless beachgoers heading into the water. Brody faces several distractions as he tries to keep an eye on everybody, and the director wisely keeps putting objects to obscure our view of the scene. Then the film cuts underneath the water and that Williams theme kicks in.

The second scene occurs later on when Brody, Quint, and Hooper are hunting the shark. Quint is observing the water while the other two men are working on various tasks. The reinforced fishing rod Quint has set up clicks once, but it’s enough for him to notice. There’s a barely perceptible movement on the line in the water. Quint begins quietly securing himself to the seat, while Brody, standing right in front of him, is utterly unaware of what’s going on.

Both scenes are masterworks in slowly turning up the tension, as the central character in both scenes is hyper-vigilant about his surroundings, but no one else is. Spielberg is patient enough at the beginning to not use music to telegraph the shark, instead choosing to focus on ambient sounds to draw the audience into the scene as our awareness is raised as well. We realize something’s up at the same time as the characters, and when the score finally kicks in, it’s a confirmation that the threat is real.

“Jaws” is excellent at ramping up the tension, for both the characters and the audience, and it helps us anticipate danger. It’s such a useful technique for Spielberg, but it’s all a rope-a-dope and sets us up for the biggest scare of the movie when he breaks these patterns to finally reveal the shark.

I was born a few months after “Jaws” was released, so I didn’t come to it until much later. By then, I was taken by the high stake adventures of “Star Wars,” “Ghostbusters,” “Aliens,” and the like, so a simple story about stopping a shark in the ocean seems rather quaint. But as blockbusters keep getting bigger, louder, and more complicated, the simplicity of “Jaws” is its most enduring quality. If the movie has an instant “shark attack” hook for audiences, Spielberg manages to deliver the execution at such a high level that I can’t imagine anybody being able to improve upon this. “Jaws,” like its antagonist, is a perfect machine.

Not that people haven’t tried to improve upon it anyway, often with dismal results. There were three sequels to “Jaws” without Spielberg behind the helm, and the most memorable thing about them is Michael Caine’s quote about starring in “Jaws: The Revenge,” released in 1987: “I have never seen it, but by all accounts, it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.” The birth of CGI in films has allowed films to show even bigger sharks on screen in movies like 1999’s “Deep Blue Sea” and 2018’s “The Meg,” but these movies tend to focus more energy on elaborate shark attacks than building genuine tension.

While “Jaws” is now regarded as a landmark movie in cinema, the critics weren’t very kind to the film upon its release. Between the reviews citing the focus around shock value and elements like the implausibility of the mayor not closing beaches (2020 Editor’s Note: It’s plausible!), these writers went out of their way to dump on “Jaws,” even if they appreciated the techniques behind it.

“The argument has always been that tragedy, violence, and terror, witnessed, purged us of them,” wrote Charles Champlin of The Los Angeles Times in 1975. “The Grand Guignol theater of Paris, with its bloodlettings and eye-gougings ingeniously faked, was thought to have denatured shock by making it amusing. After ‘Jaws,’ you do wonder what it was that purged and what it takes to entertain these days.”

While the reviews of “Jaws” have not aged well, the movie does. The film may lack the depth of its peers during that era, but I can’t help but marvel at Spielberg’s craftsmanship on display. It’s like admiring an exquisitely hand-carved chair: It may not change the world, but it’s functional and beautiful at the same time. “Jaws,” however, did change the world, at least in how we watch movies. It was an immediate hit at the box office, becoming the first film to surpass $100 million in ticket sales. It also received several Academy Award nominations, including for Best Picture, and three wins. It has cemented its legacy in film and placed well in several “Best Movies” lists, including the various American Film Institute rankings.

If “Jaws” was an Instagram account, it would be considered an Influencer. Thanks to its success, both the industry and film audiences gradually shifted their dollars from films driven by internal conflict to those portraying external spectacle. Now we’re at a point where all of the oxygen in the room is taken up by the big franchise movies because they’re about the only thing left that we usually agree upon collectively. I, too, wish for much more diversity than we are provided these days. Still, as much as people complain about the dominance of high-concept blockbuster movies for the masses, I feel the keen absence of these communal experiences. I miss the ability to head to the show opening night with a bucket of buttery popcorn and an overpriced soda, no matter how dumb the movie sounds, because there is still value in two hours of escapist entertainment, especially in this world. It doesn’t happen as much as it should, but when the film is good, the audience is in sync, and the blockbuster works, as it does in “Jaws,” it’s magic.

The Weekend: June is one of the most prolific months of movie releases on the calendar, and the films of Week 25 offer a star-studded lineup of fun, adventure, and romance. However, it’s easy to make “Jaws” as the clear choice of the week, given its outstanding quality, the establishment of Spielberg as a creative force to be reckoned with, and as a historical landmark that established the summer blockbuster season.

While Spielberg focused on the craft of entertainment, director Roman Polanski blended noir and psychology in his 1974 mystery, “Chinatown,” released a year before “Jaws.” “Chinatown” stars Jack Nicholson as detective Jake Gittes, determined to unravel the secrets of Southern California’s water distribution but discovers even darker personal secrets. The highly acclaimed movie won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, but Polanski’s life took a dark turn after he committed statutory rape and fled to France to escape imprisonment. “Chinatown” was but one of Hollywood’s new wave of films, including “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” in 1966, “The Wild Bunch” in 1969, and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” in 1971, all also released on this weekend.

1975 was also the birth of another institution, this time on TV. The Not Ready for Prime Time Players of “Saturday Night Live” became comedy superstars in short order, and it was only a matter of time before they made the leap to film. John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd created “The Blues Brothers” act on the show, and they became the first SNL characters to star in their own feature film. The 1980 film directed by John Landis remains one of the best SNL spinoff films, thanks in part to several music legends that offered variety to the entertainment.

Mid-June continues to be a sweet spot for DC superhero films. There were lots of behind-the-scenes changes (and even a directing switch), but 1981’s “Superman II” was a fun follow-up to the original, helped significantly by a deliciously villainous performance by Terrance Stamp as General Zod. A few years later, another hero was reborn onscreen in Tim Burton’s “Batman.” The 1989 movie, featuring Michael Keaton as the Dark Knight and Jack Nicholson as the Joker, was a worldwide phenomenon and one of the biggest box office hits of all time. Burton and Keaton were back for 1992’s “Batman Returns,” but the series kept changing tones, directors, and cast members. By the time the fourth movie in the series was released, 1997’s “Batman and Robin” (now with George Clooney in the cowl), producers and audiences were OK with the hero staying in the Batcave for a while.

With his good looks and “aw shucks” demeanor, Kevin Costner was on his way to becoming a major star when he starred in 1988’s “Bull Durham.” Written and directed by Ron Shelton, the sports comedy delves into the inner workings of a minor league baseball team, with Costner, playing a veteran catcher on the way down, advising a young pitcher (Tim Robbins) who’s destined for the majors who’s already involved with another, unofficial advisor, played by Susan Sarandon. Costner would go on to play more baseball in 1989’s “Field of Dreams” and 1999’s “For Love of the Game,” carving himself out with a nice niche as an ace movie athlete and eternal “boy of summer.”

This is also a big weekend for Disney films, with 1994’s “The Lion King” at the top of the list. Inspired by William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” (and, more controversially, “Kimba the White Lion”), the animated film about a young lion trying to live up to his father’s example, was the most successful film of the Disney renaissance in the early 90s. Also, Disney released “The Lady and the Tramp” in 1955, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1996, “Mulan” in 1998, “Tarzan” in 1999, and “Lilo and Stitch” in 2002.

Julia Roberts became one of the most famous movie stars in the world after the release of “Pretty Woman,” but she spent several years after that stretching her acting muscles in different projects that weren’t as popular with audiences. That changed with “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” released this weekend in 1997, which saw Roberts subtly play the antagonist in a romantic comedy. The movie was a huge hit, outpacing that weekend’s other new release, “Batman and Robin,” and returning Roberts to the throne for female stars.

When “The Fast and the Furious” was released in 2001, audiences may have enjoyed the Vin Diesel and Paul Walker street racing film, but critics and cynics compared it to a poor man’s “Point Break.” Little did anybody know the movie would launch the most diverse worldwide franchise we have going today. The fourth sequel, “Fast Five,” was a series highlight.

Spielberg would direct several other films that were released earlier in June, but besides “Jaws,” his only other Week 25 contribution is 2002’s “Minority Report.” Based on the short story written by Philip K. Dick, the movie takes place in the near future, with Tom Cruise on the run from a society subjected to constant surveillance. Spielberg’s “Minority Report” is worth watching, and part of that period where the director leaned more into hard science fiction than the crowd-pleasers of his earlier work.

As the century turned into the 2000s, many comedies continued to vie for our love and attention, but the results here were decisively poor. “Dodgeball” in 2004 entertainingly made the most out of its premise, but the following years produced a string of duds: “Bewitched” in 2005, “Click” in 2006, “Evan Almighty” in 2007, and “Get Smart” in 2008. Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds teamed for 2009’s “The Proposal” to regain the comedy mojo.

However, the crew at Pixar Studios apparently saw an opening, releasing “Toy Story 3” this weekend in 2010. The third adventure for Buzz and Woody was a considerable success (especially in the heart-string-tugging category). From here out, Pixar secured the weekend for future releases: “Cars 2” in 2011, “Brave” in 2012, “Monsters University” in 2013, “Inside Out” in 2015, “Finding Dory” in 2016, and “Toy Story 4” in 2019.

Other movies released in Week 25 include “Cannonball Run” in 1981, “The Karate Kid” in 1984, “Cocoon” in 1985, “The Last Action Hero” in 1993, and “Chicken Run” in 2000.

Next Week: “Do the Right Thing”

Originally published at https://ultimatemovieyear.com on June 18, 2020.

Founder of Capen Media and writer who looks back on film history every week. Read past columns at www.ultimatemovieyear.com.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store