Every week in 2018, the plan is that my friend Rod is going to ask me some geeky question that will answer in a post. This week is Week #35, and this week’s question has a strange thematic connection with last week’s.
Why can’t Jaws be beat as the best shark movie of all time?
Actually Rod asked me this question at the same time as last week’s question about tornadoes, and yet he wasn’t thinking of Sharknado at the time. At least, not consciously.
And…there’s actually a second part to this question, which we’ll get to, after the first part.
OK, Jaws…a notable movie in film history. It was the first summer blockbuster, the first movie to crack $100 million dollars at the box office, the first film to put celebrated director Steven Spielberg, one of the most influential people in the business, on the map.
But was it just popular, or is it actually good?
Well, yes, it’s good. Really good. The film of its genre, in fact.
Let’s give credit to Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb, who wrote the script, based on Benchley’s novel. It’s a gripping story, about a beach town unraveling under the wake of brutal attacks by a shark on the eve of its biggest tourism season. A beleaguered sheriff is in way over his head as he navigates not only the attacks, but also the conflicting interests of the townsfolk. Tension ratchets up as the attacks continue, in spite of the town’ civic leaders best efforts to act like the whole thing isn’t a big deal. The story works because it never loses sight of its characters and the human drama even as it talks about aquatic monsters. Then, halfway through the story it goes from “solid” to “amazing”, as the story is reduced to three strongly delineated characters hunting down the shark on a boat. Wisely, it never takes us back from this, keeping the tension high and the focus very strong.
Let’s also credit John Williams, who wrote one of the most iconic musical scores ever, with one of the world’s most recognizable title themes. Like the movie overall, the score knows when to be restrained and when to cut loose, always serving the story and it’s emotional atmosphere.
Let’s credit Robert Shaw, Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss, the movie’s three leads, who all deliver exceptional performances, especially for what is in essence an adventure movie.
So much of the movie rides on the interactions of these three men, so the story wisely makes each one distinct and individually realized. Robert Shaw’s Quint the fisherman is the most memorable, with his gruff bluster and potential insanity which comes out under the pressure of the hunt. But a lot of the character’s strength comes from the contrast that exists with Richard Dreyfuss’ educated marine biologist, Hooper. In between these two “expert” sits Roy Scheider’s Brody, who alone has nothing to prove but rather simply wants to do his job as town sheriff. The dynamic between these three leads during the film’s second half when they are on their extended boat ride is one of the movie’s strongest features.
Let’s credit Bruce, aka the animatronic that was developed to play the shark in the movie. Apparently, it didn’t work all that well, which led to its use being minimized in the final production. This forced the filmmakers to be inventive in the way they used camerawork and editing to build tension and tell the story. These sorts of challenges can be detrimental to a film, but in this case they made it stronger–especially since the actual shark effects are the most dated things about the movie. This isn’t a criticism, actually, as the effects are actually pretty good. It’s just that technology has changed so much since 1975 that a modern audience can’t help but to tell the difference.
And for goodness’ sake, let’s credit cinematographer Bill Butler, film editor Verna Fields, production designer Joseph Alves jr, and a whole lot of other people, because the evidence on the screen is that all of these people did their job really really well, and contributed to the success of the movie.
But by all means, let’s not forget to credit Steven Spielberg, who created a movie that had the gritty feel of American 1970’s cinema but with a controlled approach that made the whole thing easy to take in on a popular level. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
Part of Spielberg’s mastery of storytelling is that he knows how to build anticipation in his audience, and then to pay off that anticipation in a way that creates the desired effect. So he’s able to create the idea of the shark simply through oblique suggestions, but when he wants he’ll use the limited Bruce prop to actually show us the shark, in order to create shock, fear, awe or whatever is appropriate. Thus the limited full view of the shark effect doesn’t feel like a technological limitation, but rather like an artistic choice.
There have of course been lots of other shark movies that have been made, before and since Jaws. Some of them have even had the word “jaws” in the title. Maybe the most popular was Deep Blue Sea, about super-intelligent sharks that start eating Samuel L. Jackson, Stellan Skarsgård, and others. But that movie owes a lot more to Aliens and Jurassic Park, with their “base under siege / characters getting picked off one by one” storylines, than they do to Jaws. Jaws isn’t really about a bunch of characters fighting for survival–it’s only rarely that the main characters are actually in any danger, in fact.
Rather, it’s about a hunt to stop a creature that’s threatening the lives and livelihood of a local town. The movie expertly paces the progression from this place of assumed human superiority to the desperate struggle of the protagonists to stay alive, which only comes at the end of the story.
Every part of this struggle is so well done that it’s sort of impossible to imagine anyone ever doing a shark movie that’s as good as Jaws, or genuinely better than Jaws. It was such a perfect storm of talent and circumstances that every shark movie that’s been made since or will be made as long as cinema remains what it is will be compared to it. Every single one will either be a loving homage or a cheap knock-off. Some of those movies might be scarier, or gorier (not actually a good thing, in my measurement), or funnier, or full of more brilliant special effects, but if they can’t find a similar quality of direction, performances, dialogue and music, then it will never be as memorable or engaging.
Spielberg’s film showed us what such a story could be–blending adventure, horror and drama in perfect balance–and reaching such unparalleled heights of pop culture awareness that we can’t help but to consider it every time the words “shark” and “movie” are in the same sentence. And even it it was, it’d still be derivative because it didn’t come first.
So…having said all that, I have to move onto the second part of this question which is suggest my own attempt at making a shark film that is better than Jaws.
Or to put it another way that Rod shared the idea, the true spiritual successor to Jaws.
Well, as I’ve already argued, I don’t really think this is possible, so I’m instead going to describe the shark movie that I’d maybe be sort of curious to see…since usually, frankly, the genre puts me off (aside from Jaws, of course).
There’s not a lot of details to this, but let’s lay out what I have:
The story takes place in the 1820’s, where an English sea captain is tasked by the government to investigate a strange series of events taking place on the oceans, between England and the Americas. It seems that boats have been disappearing, and people have made vague reports of being attacked by monsters.
As the ship explores they discover that a new species of shark have emerged from the depths of the ocean, quickly multiplying and becoming the dominant creature of the sea. This shark is a bit larger than most of the real world’s more dangerous sharks (let’s put it at about 4.5 meters, which is half a meter longer than Great Whites are supposed to be) but are decidedly bolder and more aggressive. It becomes clear quickly that they actively hunt humans who are in the water as food, and when necessary, gather in sufficient numbers to poise a danger to ships.
In the course of things, our Captain runs into a ship full of slaves being brought illegally into America (as this had been prohibited since 1808), who are in danger from an attack from the sharks. The slave ship is struggling, and naturally showing little regard for the slaves. This leads to a slave mutiny. Meanwhile, an American military ship also enters the picture, and together these three crews must find common ground to survive in the face of the unexpectedly vicious onslaught from several sharks.
In the course of the battle, it is clear that these sharks are not easily defeated. They demonstrate resilience in the face of gunshots and a degree of cunning in battle. It becomes clear that the sharks are actually protecting their territory, in a manner of speaking…almost like they are offended at mankind’s increased presence in the oceans.
The tone of all of this, incidentally, is sort of survival-adventure with a taste of political drama. Obviously, there are some horrific things that take place, but I’m not necessarily just wanting to highlight a whole bunch of carnage. What’s key is that the main characters have to slowly come to realize that they are simply not a match for the sharks in battle, and that they should instead be focusing on escape and survival. The drama is enhanced by the fact that amongst the three crews, there are so many people who need to be saved.
In the end, two of the ships are lost, but thanks to the smarts of our main characters (the officers and some of the slaves), most of the people actually survive and make it to somewhere in the United States. However, even though they have survived and managed to “win”, the sharks continue to behave in the same way as a species: systematically attacking more and more vessels that try to cross their ever-increasing territory.
So now, everyone is facing the prospect of a world in which ocean travels are no longer feasible. Efforts to evade the sharks or defeat the through military might are dubiously successful at best, as the sharks continuing to multiply and assert their dominance in the waters. Indeed, our English Captain finds that as even his powerful ship was eventually destroyed, he actually has no feasible way of returning to England.
The movie ends some time later, as the American senior military and government officials struggle to lead a country that has no prospect of communication or trade with overseas neighbors. At the same time, other technologies are developing more rapidly, and the movie ends as the British Captain inspects the development of a new type of hot-air balloon that some hope could actually make a trip across the ocean.
Anyway, that’s it. Not really like Jaws, I know. But we’ve seen so many movies that wanted to be Jaws, and usually it doesn’t serve them well.
As I thought about all this I found myself interested in the idea of a world where sharks make the maritime culture hat we take for granted impossible. I was going to set it in the modern day, and look at the impact of these attacks on a wide scale through a whole bunch of different characters, but then I thought that just feels like all those end-of-the-world disaster movies that come out from time to time, usually directed by Roland Emmerich, and I wanted to avoid that. I thought having it take place in an alternate history from a few hundred years ago would be interesting and open a bit of exploration. How would the world be different, for example, if all that energy put into developing seafaring technology had suddenly been redirected? But if in the meantime, the vast majority of interaction with other countries and cultures (and trading partners) was suddenly curtailed?
Maybe instead of a movie, this should be a 5 part miniseries in which each movie takes place in a different time period, so we could see how things wound up changing. That’d be interesting.
A genuine spiritual successor to Jaw? Probably not. But it’s something I’d rather see than most movies that would imagine themselves as trying to achieve those lofty ambitions.