The modern summer blockbuster and the mega movie event as a whole can be traced back to the summer of 1975 and the debut of director Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. In an instant, the Hollywood system of filmmaking was altered forever and the idea of a summer blockbuster film was born. The years preceding the hit film were filled decidedly smaller budget cinema, with more films that fell into the auteur theory of filmmaking defining the landscape than ever before. The post-Jaws world of Hollywood would soon be defined by big budget, special effects-heavy cinema like Star Wars, which brought in huge crowds for equally huge profits.
The story of a great white shark terrorizing the people of Amity Island in the summer and police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the man dedicated to stopping it, quickly became the highest grossing film of all time both in North America and internationally. It’s a moment in film history that is still being felt today.
While Jaws’ massive success and influence can be attributed to the idea of “right time, right place, right movie,” Spielberg’s mega hit is not a touchstone film simply because of its box office-reshaping profits. Rather, Jaws is the high-water mark when it comes to the so-called “popcorn film.” In its wake, countless massively budgeted movies have attempted to replicate its formula, pop culture influence, and legacy. Although there are dozens of like-minded films that have come along in the decades since, Jaws remains the paragon of blockbuster filmmaking. Understanding its incomparable success in its many elements is to understand what makes or breaks any big budget mainstream movie.
Character Balances Spectacle
A defining quality of blockbuster cinema is high concept, effects-focused spectacle that dazzles the audience, but not necessarily the critics. But what Spielberg and screenwriters Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb understood was that the characters were the way that audiences would be truly hooked into the narrative. Through relatable protagonists, the stakes become more personal, far scarier, and much more memorable. While the concept of a killer shark and the quest to kill it is simple enough, the team behind Jaws did not speak down to the audience. Instead, the nuanced character work throughout the film makes it much more engaging than many of the films that would imitate it in the following decades.
One of the most crucial pieces to the successful puzzle that is Jaws is that during the adaptation process, the characters of Peter Benchley’s novel were made far more likeable for the big screen. While the story as a whole is largely instact, an affair between Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and Brody’s wife Ellen (Lorraine Gray) was eliminated, a greater amount of levity within the narrative was added, and the characters in general were made into people that the audience could more easily identify with and root for from start to finish.
That last bit is absolutely essential here, as Jaws is far more interested in having an intimate focus on its protagonists than on just thrills and chills. That, in large part, is why the film has aged so magnificently. While the language of cinema has continued to speed up and the special effects featured have looked worse over time, audiences are still captivated because of how Spielberg makes them invest so deeply in the story. Brody in particular stands as the quintessential working man hero, whose blue collar life, nuclear family, and common decency connect with a mass audience. While the film’s focus on white male protagonists can be picked apart and challenged when it comes to modern awareness of equal representation in cinema, having a working class hero be the central figure of Jaws has far more merit than the decades of chiseled, rich, high class, white male figures that have dominated most blockbuster films.
While most will immediately think of the shark attacks and high seas thrills when they recall Jaws, there are large portions of the film that are devoted to much smaller character moments far removed from anything shark related. By tracking Sheriff Brody through daily life in Amity and paying attention to the relationships he has with his wife and sons, audiences better understand the protagonist of the film, as well as the quaint life that defines the island town. Moments like a receptionist describing a complaint about a group of kids “karate-ing” a neighbor’s fence or Brody’s walk through town that is constantly interrupted by the requests of locals are given just as much thought as the special effects-heavy action set pieces.
Throughout the film, these character-focused scenes balance and stand in direct juxtaposition to the shark-related horrors. Brody’s paranoid watching of the Fourth of July beach goers is constantly interrupted by the off-kilter locals, which inevitably leads to tragedy. A long day of shark hunting gives way to a night of drinking and storytelling between Brody, Quint, and Hooper, resulting in the stellar speech concerning the U.S.S. Indianapolis, which gives greater context to Quint’s mindset. Each of these moments push forward character development and create a more robust setting for the film. Amity Island is both widely relatable and also distinctly quirky, just like its many characters.
It’s a complete integration of character details and narrative that cannot be unraveled because Spielberg specifically wanted it to be part of his film, hiring Gottlieb to improve Benchley’s original draft through detailed character work, as well as the help of several other writers and the use of improvisation from actors. Too many blockbusters put generic archetypes as their leads and hope that the spectacle around them will excuse it. Others will throw in a moment of character development as an afterthought, pasting it into the script once everything else is done in order to avoid accusations of cardboard characters. Too bad it’s just as noticeable as not having it in the film.
High Adventure, Big Stakes
Why does Jaws have such big stakes despite having a general small focus in its story? Because it is legitimately terrifying. It’s amazing that this film was rated PG (long before the creation of PG-13) and has remained a mainstream feature seen by people of all ages. There are severed limbs shown in all their stumpy glory, decapitations, images of real life shark attacks, and the blood-squirting death of a child. It’s messed up, yet Spielberg’s magical touch renders the whole thing magnetic and insanely watchable.
From the very first shot, Spielberg creates a language of skin-crawling vulnerability through the use of shark POV shots as it hunts underwater, bolstered by composer John Williams’ indelible lurking two-note score. Think of how many shots are simply focused on the legs of potential victims. Swimming carefree in the ocean, the residents of Amity Island are defenseless, oblivious, and ready to be ripped into at any moment. Nearly every victim is taken from the feet up, which preserves the air of mystery around the shark while the idea of fighting back laughable. While Jaws shouldn’t be classified as a horror movie because of its adventure film language and structure, it uses the strengths of the genre to its advantage whenever it has the chance. This creates a lurking menace that forces Brody into action.
The real terror Spielberg creates is combined with delicately human moments, which means that once the bodies start piling up, the deaths feel far more human and begin to weigh heavily on Brody in particular. Mrs. Kitner slapping Brody in the wake of her son’s death and his broken-hearted moments with his young son at the dinner table that follow are quietly crushing. They believably fuel his dedication throughout the rest of the film, which is tempered by a very human (and correct) fear.
As the film brilliantly transitions into its narrowly focused yet adventurous second half on the high seas(which was hell for the crew to film), the fear felt previously informs what could be a much more lighthearted adventure. The mystery of the shark is slowly pulled back through subsequent reveals, but it only grows more terrifyingly active. As the ocean-bound triumvirate of Brody, Hooper, and Quint find themselves outmatched against the 25-foot sea beast, we fear for their lives and thrill at their triumphs. All three actors deliver stellar performances, bouncing off one another in the most electric of ways as Spielberg continues to balance the big moments with the small. The three may be voluntarily at war with the great white, but they are in no less danger than the unsuspecting swimmers back at Amity.
The Lasting Legacy of Jaws
It’s easy to see that in the wake of Jaws, movie studios began to search for the next big summer hit that would put their finances well into the black. The summer movie season became the time for big budget adventures that would bring in the widest audience possible. And while that would result in as many positives (like clearing the way for Star Wars, Superman, Indiana Jones, and the like) as negatives (the slow but sure sidelining of financing for niche films in favor of surefire blockbusters), it’s far more interesting to look at Jaws’ influence on film creation over film financing.
Spielberg had no ambition of making a film that changed lives with Jaws, although its lasting impact on shark-related fears is most certainly indicative of its success in scaring audiences. But that doesn’t mean that he looked to create a quickly forgotten piece of cinematic gossamer. Most blockbuster films are not designed to be worldview-altering experiences for viewers. However, they have no excuse for being forgettable junk food.
The Transformers 4s of the world are not the child of Jaws, they are the result of studios who would rather shell out a name brand than a thought-out film. Films like Back to the Future, Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Dark Knight, and more prove that a high-concept film can have a large budget, a simple premise, and a wide appeal, but also be determined to be the absolute best that it can be. Should Jaws have been as truly stupid as the hundreds of would-be blockbuster films that looked to be as successful as Spielberg’s landmark movie, then the idea of a summer blockbuster would not have been born in 1975.
The films that seek to capture the magic, thrills, and innovation of Jaws are the ones that will also be remembered across the decades that follow. That may not always result in the massive box office success that Jaws once had, but that’s not the true legacy of this timeless masterpiece.