40 years ago, a great white shark with his own theme music swam into theaters and secured himself a place in pop culture history. Even people who have never seen a single Jaws flick think of the movie when they hear about a real shark sighting. Millions of people know we’re going to need a bigger boat and even more will yell ‘shark’ when they hear those deep, throbbing bars of Johnny Williams goodness.
It’s an incredible success story. Not only was Jaws an unlikely critical and commercial hit, the film literally made people think twice about swimming in the ocean. Why unlikely? Think about it. Jaws is about an unnaturally large shark that terrorizes a New England beach town at the height of tourist season. That’s it. You can say it has underlying Moby Dick themeology and that it’s a parable about man’s struggle to deal with his own primal instincts or any of a dozen other psycobabble options. And maybe when Peter Benchley wrote the book he had a deeper meaning in mind. But people don’t watch Jaws for deeper meaning. They definitely don’t watch Jaws 3 for deeper meaning. We watch to see that giant monster snack on privileged people.
I’ve spent my whole life living near an ocean and I know that a real shark attack is a horrible thing. So are real earthquakes, fires and capsized ships but that doesn’t keep me from enjoying a good disaster movie. Actually, I think one of the reasons Jaws works is because it’s a hair closer to fantasy than reality. That fish is BIG and fake looking which is okay because real sharks have that same painted-rubber look as the fake one in the film. So bravo to the effects team and Mother Nature.
Jaws also works because the stellar cast was handed a marvelously witty script. Then Spielberg did his thing by including a cast of background actors who look and sound like real people. The beach scenes in Jaws are filled with old people, fat people, people who have no business being seen in public in a bathing suit. This isn’t a Beach Blanket Bingo film and it’s not Baywatch. I love Spielberg for that.
I fell in love with Jaws because it combined two of my favorite genres, the old Universal monster movie and 1970’s disaster films. As a kid, I spent a week every summer playing in the ocean in Wildwood, NJ, so I could relate to the film’s setting and characters. Years later, I learned that the first documented case of a swimmer being attacked by a shark happened at a New Jersey seaside resort. Michael Capuzzo tells the story in his book “Close to Shore“. It’s an interesting work, but doesn’t have the gravitas of Benchley’s novel.
Now we must discuss, the other Jaws movies. . .
I’m one of the few who prefers Jaws 2 to the original and the only person who loves Jaws 3. I refuse to believe there’s a Jaws 4.
Jaws 2 is Jaws without all the parts I disliked in the first movie, such as the lengthy sequences with Quint, Hooper and Brody on the boat. Those scenes make Jaws a more thoughtful, character driven movie, which is super if you want to win an Oscar. But for pure watching enjoyment, Jaw 2 has more action, a faster pace and less introspection.
Jaws 3, which was released in 3-D, is exactly another step forward with even more action, even less characterization and a silly plot about an even larger shark swimming a muck in a theme park. But that’s not the most unbelievable part. The most unbelievable part is that the leads are Brody’s two kids from the first movies. Now they’re all grown up and after witnessing TWO shark attacks as kids, they’re now witness to a third event. This leads us to believe that the sharks have a personal vendetta against the Brody family and can some how use their shark radar to find them when they get within 100 yards of an ocean.
I believe this is the premise behind the mythical Jaws 4.
Scoff and mock if you must, but Jaws 3 is a lot of fun to watch. If you’re a Sharknado fan, you’ll love Jaws 3.
In honor of the 40th anniversary of the original, TCM is hosting special event screenings in theaters Sunday, June 21 and Wednesday, June 24. Tickets are available through Fandango or Fathom Events. I can’t wait to see Jaws again on the big screen. If it’s your first time, I’ll give you the same piece of advice my friend gave me the first time I saw the movie in theaters; cover your eyes when they start poking around Ben Gardner’s boat.
Insert Jaws theme here.
A few more fun articles for your shark hunting pleasure:
The Nightmare of ‘Jaws’: 10 on-set disasters that plagued Spielberg’s 1975 classic over at Hitflix
40 Things that Wouldn’t Have Happened Without Jaws from Vanity Fair
My Jaws gallery from Universal Studios
Here are some of those “normal” people in this clip from Movie Clips