'Jaws' marks a major and significantly momentous point in the history of cinema and filmmaking, whether as a general movie-going experience or as an interest for academic study. Definitely the most obvious aspect of its legacy is that it introduced Steven Spielberg to the world and made him, who at the time was still only 28-years-old, into a household name. The film doesn't exactly illustrate a particular style that's uniquely his — that's to come years later with 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and 'E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,' which evolved into a distinctively refined aesthetic in 'Schindler's List' and 'Munich' — but it's one hell of a prelude of things to come from such a young filmmaker. The 1975 horror thriller shows skill, polish, and efficiency, delivering the sort of terrifying, visceral punch we expect from movies but rarely attain. And to this day, just shy of its 40th anniversary, it remains one of the greatest, most effective suspense films ever made.
That skill and polish is significant because the simple story of hunting a man-eating great white shark terrorizing a small beach-town resort is exactly that, very simple. The idea, which in effect ushered in the era of bankable "high-concept" premises, is typical of the sort of material commonly seen in low-budget B-movies, a creature-feature of the Exploitation variety which major studios would normally pass on to smaller independent production companies. The filmmakers took a schlock-quality concept and brought it to the level of mainstream acceptability, a brilliant masterpiece and spectacle of fear. Basically, Spielberg's first box-office smash also left a permanent mark in the world of Exploitation Cinema by making B-grade material accessible to a wider audience, opening doors for movies like George Lucas' 'Star Wars' and Ridley Scott's 'Alien.'
Of course the film, based on the Peter Benchley novel of the same name, overcomes much of the plot's B-level sentimentality by populating it with a great assortment of characters portrayed by an excellent cast of actors. Without a doubt, the most memorable is Robert Shaw as the experienced shark hunter Quint, a man with such a cold, hard exterior it's surprising Shaw makes him as lovable and heroic as he does. Richard Dreyfuss brings a winsome, affable personality to the privileged scientist, a conventional persona of B-genre he makes into his own. And Roy Scheider's police chief Brody is just as unforgettable, a city outsider forced to confront his fear of water. One of the more remarkable scenes, and there are quite a few in this horror classic, is the drunk chat between the three just before the shark attacks their boat.
The portrayals of each actor are already believable prior to this, but the jovial conversation transforms them into living, breathing human beings — men we feel closer to just as they're about to enter a life-threatening battle. I particularly enjoy the moment when Schneider pulls down his shirt while Dreyfuss and Shaw bond by sharing ocean-related wounds. He's either hiding some unseen scar which is the source of his fear, or he's suddenly feeling embarrassed for his phobia because he has no scars, and therefore no reason to fear the water like the other two. I believe the latter to be the more likely, and that simple gesture adds a greater depth to his personality. It's this sort of intelligence writhing beneath the horror which elevates the narrative beyond schlock. Taken even further, if we read deeper into the story, the "man vs. nature" aspect of the plot works as a response to the hippie counterculture's message of living as one with nature. 'Jaws' is a successful reminder of the hidden dangers lurking underneath its majestic beauty.
On a cinematic scale, Spielberg's film is a defining moment in the history of motion pictures, unexpectedly inaugurating the summer blockbuster approach to filmmaking which obviously still continues today. It has forever changed how studios produce and promote movies, with preference and priority to high-concept premises with wide commercial appeal, eventually inviting the attention of major corporations to enter the moviemaking business. With its massive, record-breaking success, 'Jaws' also inadvertently marks the end of the New Hollywood era, that brief period of time when studios were more willing to take a chance on some rather experimental films made with a film-school educated mentality and featuring a variety of countercultural themes. Those short-lived years gave us amazing works like 'Bonnie & Clyde,' 'The French Connection,' 'Taxi Driver,' 'Chinatown,' 'The Godfather Part II,' and so many more, while introducing moviegoers to a long list of actors, directors and cinematographers. Although studios didn't put an end to the era right away, the shark undeniably had enough of bite to be seen as the beginning of studios refocusing their attention elsewhere.
This is not to imply that 'Jaws' doesn't offer any interesting filmmaking techniques or display any creative methods which impress on the same level of caliber and skill. Spielberg, too, comes from a film-school background and approach, although his career took off before he actually completed his education. The film demonstrates his talent for capturing thrilling action and generating suspense from the most simplistic camera angles and balancing it with poignant, touching drama. It shows he values the photography of Bill Butler and is aware of the importance of John Williams's minimalist score, an iconic theme all unto itself, for building fear and anticipation. But above all else, one of the film's most incredible aspects is the editing. Spielberg worked very closely with Verna Fields to ensure viewers never see too much of the shark, which the crew affectionately named "Bruce," and realize how funnily shoddy it actually looks. Fields only provided short glimpses of the mechanical prop, which in effect allows the mind run wild, filling in the gaps and creating fear purely from our own imagination.
'Jaws' is a genuine masterpiece of suspense and terror, much of it thanks in large part to the editing work of Fields, which makes the film an excellent piece for study. All other areas also come together exceptionally well, from Spielberg's directing, Butler's photography and Williams' iconic theme. To put it more bluntly, it's a remarkable work in the art of horror — simple, efficient and just as effective today as ever. It's an important and significant piece in the history of cinema offering a great deal to discuss and analyze, but we'll leave it for now as a motion picture that should continue being cherished by future generations of film-lovers everywhere.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Jaws' to Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack in line with the studio's 100th Annniversary label. The Region Free, BD50 disc sits comfortably on an opposing panel to a DVD-9 copy of the movie. With a sleek and shiny slipcover that opens up on the front, the blue eco-lite packaging includes a pamphlet with a code for an UltraViolet Digital Copy. At startup, viewers go straight to the familiar main menu window with an edited cut of the film's opening nighttime swim scene, which then switches to a serene and calm view of the ocean with a buoy in the distance.
The classic summer blockbuster takes a massive bite out of Blu-ray with a spectacular high-def presentation. Presented in its theatrical 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode was struck from a recent restoration of the original camera negatives, supervised and approved by Steven Spielberg. Of course, the picture still comes with a few age-related issues, like soft edges in certain scenes, but on the whole, the transfer is fantastic with spot-on contrast and stunning clarity into the far distance. Black levels are true and often sumptuous in several areas with excellent delineation of the various gradations and small background objects hiding in the shadows. The color palette receives a generous boost without feeling artificial, especially in the bold primaries.
The thinly-layered grain structure is a tad thicker and more pronounced in the dimly-lit sequences, which is to be expected and natural. Brightly lit exteriors are astounding, making the horror thriller look fresh and rejuvenated but still comes with an attractive cinematic appeal. The video displays sharp, distinct definition in the hair and clothing of the cast, revealing wrinkles and pores in the faces of actors. You can clearly make out every detail and objects in Quint's boat, from the scratches and imperfections on the wood to the bottles and fishing tools hanging along the walls. Bruce the Shark, in particular, shows a few scars not seen before, and its fish skin is looking especially slimmer and smoother than ever. Overall, this is a magnificent and splendid presentation of a great classic.
The original mono recording is also given the restoration treatment and receives a massive upgrade with this DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 soundtrack. Credit has to go to the engineers who worked on this because it's brilliant. Rather than simply making new foley effects, they singled the sounds from the original design, cleaned them up and repurposed them, expanding the soundfield into a wonderfully immersive aural experience. The rears often come alive with discrete atmospherics of the beach, ocean and the chatter of tourists flooding Amity. The iconic music of John Williams bleeds fluidly into the surrounds, beautifully enveloping the listening area with excitement and thrills.
Although back speakers are used a bit more than should be allowed, considering the original recording, this lossless mix doesn't lose focus and remains a front-heavy presentation. Conversations are precise and intelligible with superb emotive intonation, though the often slurred words of Robert Shaw (the actor was a notorious alcoholic during production) are difficult to understand in several occasions. Channel separation is well-balanced, delivering many off-screen effects with smooth panning and generating a terrifically warm and convincing image. Dynamic range is sharply rendered and detailed, nicely separating the mids from the highs with extraordinary clarity. Williams's minimalist score benefits from this immensely, exhibiting clean differentiation between the few instruments used in his orchestration. The low-end isn't particularly powerful, but it can be quite potent at times and thrillingly effective nonetheless.
To commemorate Universal's 100th Anniversary, the studio has interestingly decided to re-release 'Jaws' on DVD, coinciding with the Blu-ray, but opted not to include all the special features seen in the previous two movie anniversary releases. They are collected instead here, for Blu-ray owners, but still missing several others from the 25th Anniversary disc. In their place, the new DVD offers an UltraViolet Digital Copy of the film.
Starring Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw, 'Jaws' is the film which has left a permanent mark on the history of cinema, remaining one of the most effective horror thrillers ever made, it changed the motion picture industry forever. The simple, high-concept premise of a man-eating shark terrorizing a small beach resort community not only transformed Steven Spielberg into a household name, but also introduced the special effects, blockbuster extravaganza which has become the staple of the summer movie season. As one of the most anticipated titles to hit Blu-ray, Spielberg's classic film arrives with a spectacular, reference-quality audio and video presentation that will more than satisfy movie lovers everywhere. Many of the supplements from previous releases are ported over, but this latest incarnation also offers a couple new surprises, making this Blu-ray edition of 'Jaws' a must-own.