Summer Movie Showdown: "Jaws" Review

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When a gigantic great white shark begins to menace the small island community of Amity, a police chief, a marine scientist and grizzled fisherman set out to stop it.
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Summer Movie Showdown: "Jaws" Review

-- Rating: PG
Length: 124 minutes
Release Date: June 20, 1975
Directed by: Steven Spielberg
Genre: Adventure/Horror/Thriller

Horror movies hold unique places in the shared pop culture heritage. Whether people love or hate being afraid, the experience is almost always a memorable one. The onscreen villains who successfully terrify viewers in the daylight and haunt their nightmares at night are rarely forgotten. Jason, Freddy, and Chucky are all easily identifiable figures. These characters are so familiar to the average horror fan that they need only first names to bring back that little tingle of spine-chilling fear.

Not all horror movies feature a humanoid killer, however. Take "Poltergeist," the 1982 supernatural chiller. Memorable moments in this movie series include a possessed clown, an animated tree, and lines like towheaded tot Carol Anne's spooky, "They're he-ere." Similarly, "Jaws," the 1975 classic about a bloodthirsty great white shark, is brought instantly to mind by the simple tones of composer John Williams' eerie, frightening theme. The music, in fact, is so powerfully associated with fear that it's been parodied everywhere from the 1980 Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker farce "Airplane!" to today's cartoon hit "Family Guy."

Moviegoers seem to love something about the trope of man versus fish, and literary greats from Ernest Hemingway to Herman Melville have taken it on. In "Jaws," the traditional story takes a dark and dangerous turn as Amity Island is terrorized by a great white shark bent on eating any human that crosses its path. A bounty offered by the mother of a young shark victim draws professionals and optimistic amateurs alike to the island in an effort to capture and subdue the ravenous creature once and for all.

The movie features an all-star cast and a directorial effort from a young Steven Spielberg who catapulted him to superstardom. Roy Scheider ("The French Connection"), Richard Dreyfuss ("American Graffiti"), Robert Shaw ("The Sting"), Murray Hamilton ("The Graduate"), and Lorraine Gary ("1941") bring their considerable talents to the screen. Based on the novel by Peter Benchley, the screenplay by Benchley and Carl Gottlieb is more literary than audiences might normally expect from standard horror fare, and Spielberg's direction ensures the movie is an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride from start to finish.

As modern advances in special effects and video editing have gone so far since 1975, it's surprising how well a monster movie like "Jaws" holds up even more than three decades later. The story itself plays a part here. The simple story of men on a boat trying to catch a dangerous predator requires little in the way of explosions or chase scenes. Instead, the horror comes from Spielberg's masterful direction. Red herrings and false alarms are planted at every turn. When events finally do transpire, both viewers and the characters themselves are so exhausted and edgy that the bloodshed appears to have come from out of nowhere.

Comic relief and well-developed characters lend to the appeal of this classic film. Unlike many monster movies, "Jaws" is as much about a motley crew of misfits doing their best to save their island and make money doing it as it is about the monster itself. As a result, the sometimes-awkward and unrealistic-looking mechanical shark that plays the monster itself can be overlooked as a relic of its time without taking away from the sheer popcorn-munching enjoyment of the movie itself.

Generation X movie fans often count "Jaws" among their earliest cinematic memories. Doubtless, the movie has left many with lifelong-and unrealistic-fears of shark attacks. Even those who don't have a particular memory of the movie itself are familiar with its premise and the iconic theme music. "Jaws" is a piece of cinematic history that's returned to again and again in movies, television, comedy, and more. Lines like Scheider's deadpan, "You're gonna need a bigger boat" have received widespread reference as well. Watching this classic thriller again now reminds viewers just what an influence the film has had on their entertainment over the past thirty years.

To fully enjoy "Jaw," viewers should just forget the sequels, back away slowly from the poorly done 3-D version, and suspend their disbelief when the mechanical shark looks silly compared to today's movie effects. In addition, their critical eye should be set aside for the spliced-in stock footage of real sharks. Instead, viewers should watch "Jaws" as children who have never seen a scary movie before. They need to grab a teddy bear along with a bowl of popcorn and then snuggle on the sofa under a blanket. When the great white jumps overboard and pulls Shaw's character underwater to his death, they should try to stifle their automatic squeal. "Jaws" was a groundbreaking film for its time, and even today, it remains the ultimate example of how sometimes the scariest thing isn't paranormal activity or an unrealistic serial killer, but nature and the world itself.

Rating 4 out of 5