The Cinema and the Shark: 40 years of Jaws

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So, now we’ve got those cliches over and done with (and I apologise for them unreservedly), what are we here for? It’s because 40 years ago this month – June 20 to be exact – the cinematic masterpiece that is Jaws was unleashed on an unsuspecting world. It was the first time a shark had been the real star of the show and it gave rise to a trio of sequels, not to mention inspiring others to bring fishy fiends to the big screen.

Prior to Jaws, there was, as far as sharks and film as an entity were concerned, nothing. There had been plenty of ‘creature features’, but the only one that could have been justly acclaimed as a genuine classic up until then was King Kong. When you consider this was released 42 years before Jaws saw the light of day – which is older than the latter is now – you get some idea of how seismic an event the release was for cinema-goers back in 1975 (with the added advantage of a rogue shark being a tiny bit more believable than a two-storey-high gorilla).

Although shark research had been conducted and attacks weren’t unheard of, the general public were unfamiliar with the animals themselves and relatively little was known about them. This is really why the initial release of the movie gave them a bad press, to put it mildly, but things would never be the same once Peter Benchley‘s best-selling novel fell into the hands of an up-and-coming director by the name of Steven Spielberg. However, that it did, and some three months and $123m later, Jaws had overtaken The Godfather as the highest-grossing film ever to hit the U.S. box office – the ‘summer blockbuster’ had been born.

For many people’s money, not only is Jaws up there with the very best pictures of all time, but it is possibly also the finest example of a great book being translated into a great movie. In print, it is quite literally a page-turner, one of those stories that renders a dose of Nytol absolutely pointless. On the screen, the tension and suspense grips you all over again, with a minimalistic approach reminiscent of Hitchcock classics and more than a little help from John Williams‘ menacing theme tune. Anyhow, before this becomes a full-blown review, here’s how Frank Rich of New Times magazine summed it up back in the day:

It speaks well of the director’s gifts that some of the most frightening sequences in Jaws are those when we don’t even see the shark.

Couldn’t have put it better myself, but perhaps the only downsides to this success (along with a negative perception of sharks being created) were the inevitable sequels: although Jaws 2 wasn’t all that bad, things went downhill quite swiftly from then on. Worse still is that the intervening years have heaped upon us some woeful schlock-horror replicas. Megalodon and Tintorera are both good examples, but king of the trash heap has to be the ludicrous Sharknado trilogy; that bad I’m not even going to tag it in this feature – enough’s enough!

But to dwell on all of that would be to sully this ruby anniversary; instead, we’ll take a butcher’s at the good stuff. There have been three such films, all very original in their take on the subject matter rather than rehashing Jaws in the most banal way possible. The first to arrive on the scene was Beyond the Reef in 1981. Set in the South Pacific, it tells the story of a boy who befriends a tiger shark which is the guardian of some sacred pearls and which is thought to contain the spirit of a wise old man. Second on the list is 1999’s Deep Blue Sea, which overdoes the gore a little but is nontheless a highly original idea. A group of scientists are working on a cure for Alzheimer’s with the use of genetically-modified sharks. Needless to say, things soon get out of hand. Third, and probably the best of the lot, is Open Water. Shot on a shoestring budget, a couple on a diving holiday are marooned at sea when their boat party leaves without them. Just when things can’t get any worse, they inevitably do when some unwanted guests turn up.

Still, every one of these could be a turkey of the plumpest kind and Jaws would still be nothing short of legendary. On screen, it is still chilling, nerve-jangling, anything you like. Off the screen, it was simply ground-breaking. Cheers, Jaws, and happy 40th!

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