“An Eating Machine”: Jaws and the Summer Blockbuster Beast it Created

Around three weeks ago, on Sunday, June 21st, a couple of Windforwings bandmates and I went to the Movie Tavern in Williamsburg, VA to check out the 40th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s legendary Jaws. Even forty years after its theatrical release, numerous aspects of the film continue to permeate popular culture and it continues to make people feel uneasy about swimming in the ocean. During its time, however, it was the last film anyone expected to make such an impact.

Yet here we are forty years later and the general consensus about the film from a then-renegade Spielberg is clear: it’s one of the greatest of all time. To me, growing up in a beach town seemed to make its legacy resonate that much more. It never stopped me from going into the ocean, but it remained on my conscience, especially when I felt something brush against my leg. I watched this film numerous times on stormy days as a kid, so I was curious to experience the film as those from 1975 had.

The fact is that every film is better when experienced in a theatrical setting, and there’s little to no reason to suggest that Jaws would be any different. Right from the opening, you can feel John Williams’s score reverberate off the walls, building tension and creating a sense of adventure. The film provides thrills and suspense-filled chases that further capture the audience’s attention along with a fantastic script and some star performances from Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, and Richard Dreyfuss, bringing to life the brightest of characters.

The list goes on and on about the multitude of great things that Jaws has given us. Among other things, it gave us a 25-foot long mechanical shark named Bruce, thereby giving the makers of Finding Nemo inspiration for its own Great White shark. It gave us a chilling monologue from Shaw’s Captain Quint about the USS Indianapolis and the horrors he experienced, making for one of the greatest cinematic monologues to grace the screen. And most importantly, it gave us a hilarious opening scene from the 1980 disaster-parody Airplane!

While I could keep going, it would be moot point. Not only is that because Jaws is one of those films relatively few people haven’t seen – or at least, it is easy to perceive the film as such – but also because criticism isn’t the intention of this piece. Instead of one of my regular reviews, I’ll be writing a retrospective about Jaws’s place in film history, its influence on succeeding decades of cinema, and why that influence is still felt today in spite of what some may think.

Over the past few months, I have become a big fan of the people over at Screen Junkies, and have enjoyed their regular Movie Fights episodes every Sunday. In one episode, one of the questions the panelists were debating was which year was the best for film. Upon hearing such an interesting question, I started thinking about which year I would have defended. After some research, I decided on the year 1975.

1975 is arguably the greatest year in American cinema, and the 70s is arguably its greatest decade. The 70s featured more than a few classic films from young directors just getting their start as auteurs. After the collapse of both the studio system and the Motion Picture Production Code in the late 60s, young independent filmmakers who had studied all kinds of cinema were able to establish themselves in the industry and present subjects that had never been represented in American film.

1975 featured many of the best works from filmmakers both old and new. From Stanley Kubrick came Barry Lyndon, a period piece which would win four Academy Awards, along with three other nominations. Sidney Lumet, director of the intense courtroom drama 12 Angry Men, captured the intense political fervor of the decade in Dog Day Afternoon, which features a captivating performance from Al Pacino and is known as one of the few films in John Cazale’s tragically short filmography.

Robert Altman’s ensemble drama Nashville is a lasting testament on the politics of both the decade and the music industry. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won all five of the major Oscar Nominations, as well as Best Actor for Jack Nicholson’s star turn. Monty Python and the Holy Grail (U.K., I know, just go with it) grossed the highest amount of any British film exhibited in the U.S., and it continues to inspire nonstop laughter today. And The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the second-highest grossing film of the year, introduced the world to actor Tim Curry and has remained a quintessential cult classic for forty years.

Oh, and what sort of pseudo-film historian would I be if I overlooked one of the greatest cinematic accomplishments in history? I am, of course, referring to the landmark film Death Race 2000.

It was the highest-grossing film of the year that would prove the most important in the long run, and of course, that was Jaws. The production, however, was plagued with numerous problems, going over budget and past schedule. In fact, the production went through three different mechanical sharks, the first of which started sinking as soon as it touched the water. It seemed that people’s suspicions over the hire of relative unknown Spielberg were being proven legitimate.

Little did they know that it would become the highest grossing film of all time – at least until Star Wars came along only two years later – and that it would start two different trends in cinema. First of all, it would inspire a series of killer animal films that followed a similar plot structure, the most offensive of all being 1977’s Orca (ugh). Secondly, and most importantly, it started the very concept of summer blockbusters as we know them today.

Those of us born after 1975 are so familiar with grand-scale spectacles of cinema being released every summer, watching CGI explosions and superheroes/action stars dance or clumsily tumble across the screen before our very eyes. Some could say that we’ve been spoiled because these films most reflect our incredible advancements in film technology over the last few decades. Others could say, however, that we are being deprived of substance, and they’re not entirely wrong.

The modern formula for summer blockbusters is fairly similar for all films – at least for those that are primarily action-focused, as comedies tend to utilize the form of humor most popular at the time, and even that leads to some soulless creations. That formula includes, but is not limited to shallow characters, recycled dialogue with some quippy one-liners to give the brief illusion of inspired writing, and action sequences that represent a visual digital assault and a cacophonous barrage of noise that can only be described as sonic overkill.

I do realize that, at this point, much of this is just preaching to the choir. It’s unfortunate to see when summer films that receive so much positive hype before their premiere, like last year’s Godzilla and this year’s Jurassic World, take the easy way out and apply the aforementioned formula during the writing process. Apparently, making a quick profit is easier than actually trying to craft something meaningful while embracing the spectacle identity at the same time.

As of now, Jurassic World is the best example of this trend, as it became the first film to gross $500 million worldwide in its opening weekend. Not only that, it became the fastest film to gross over $1 billion, and it currently stands as the second-highest grossing film of 2015 – right behind Furious 7, a summer blockbuster-type released in April of all months – and the fifth-highest grossing film of all time. When it’s becoming increasingly easier for studios to make a profit, why reach for something more when you can do what’s tried and true?

From the skeptic’s perspective, perhaps this is what we should come to expect from the summer season. Except, we really shouldn’t. Closer to when Jaws was re-released for its 40th anniversary, I found an article that lamented about the problems plaguing modern day blockbusters. Broadly, these films are missing substance, and more specifically, they are lacking the human characters that made Jaws so enjoyable to watch. While the writer wasn’t entirely wrong, these statements seem to overlook those films that buck stereotypes.

It is important to remember that for every Jurassic World, there is a Mad Max: Fury Road, and for every Godzilla, there is a Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Those of you who have read my work for The Flat Hat know I proclaimed Dawn as the best film of the 2014 summer, and if it were not for Pixar’s Inside Out, I’d still be calling Mad Max the best film of this summer. Both Dawn and Mad Max are a different sort of action-drama, but they both have one integral aspect in common: in between the tense action set-pieces, they take the time to develop their characters and make them every bit as important as the action you see on screen.

What a novel idea! Characters who are just as vital as the improbable fight and chase scenes they are placed in. And when you take into consideration the fact that Mad Max has grossed over $366 million worldwide – making it the highest grossing film in the franchise – and that Dawn grossed a little over $708 million, perhaps we have no reason to truly worry. If only everyone could realize that intelligence is no hindrance to getting your money back.

But of course, those films reflecting no heeding of that advice will never go away. Additionally, it should be said that this is not something truly modern, as such films have existed ever since Jaws could first spawn them. Finally, these films are not part of some Hollywood epidemic – yet. From time to time, these movies are fun to pick apart and poke fun at, and sometimes it’s nice to have something available that’s mind-numbingly simple and does not ask for much from its audience.

I may have been bored to tears during many moments of Jurassic World, and I probably wouldn’t watch it again on my own volition, but the general silliness and some fleeting moments of badassery could draw me back in if I were in the mood. People can lament about the state of affairs all they want, but the danger they warn us of presents no real threat, because intelligent filmmakers will always be there to save us from the dregs. Besides, after every summer, there’s always Oscar season.

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