The Unseen Monster: Experiencing Jaws On The Big Screen For The First Time

Seeing Jaws on the big screen during its recent re-release brought Steven Spielberg’s less-is-more motif to the fore. Thirty-feet high and surrounded by sound, the film is scarier than ever before.

I recently saw Jaws at the cinema. Despite the film being more than thirty-five years old, it is the first opportunity I’ve had. I wasn’t born when it first terrified cinemagoers in 1975 but it has long been a favourite of mine having watched it countless times at home – firstly on television, then from an overworked VHS tape, and more recently DVD. In preparation for its emergence on Blu-ray later this year, digitally remastered and fully restored from 35mm original film elements and featuring a brand new DTS-HD Master 7.1 soundtrack, Universal released the film for a limited time in select theatres around the UK.

To be honest, my sense of giddy enthusiasm as I entered the theatre reminded me of the seven-year-old version of myself who witnessed the film for the first time in the early 1990s. To the other patrons in the silent, pre-trailer atmosphere of the darkened room I probably sounded like a seven-year-old too as unrestrained conversation glossed over the addition of two surround sound channels before descending into muted admiration for Michael Fassbender’s schlong as witnessed in Shame. Having arrived early for the screening there was plenty of time for this overeager anticipation, inspired by Mr Fassbender’s sizeable appendage, to discuss sexual innuendo in recent sports broadcasts. In the football we heard about “full penetration” while at the tennis the broadcaster lamented the fact female tennis players “don’t play with each other anymore.”

“All this mindless small talk of Michael Fassbender’s schlong as so prominently exhibited in Shame and sexual innuendo in recent sports broadcasts was cast aside as Chrissie Watkins disrobed and went for a swim.”

All this was quickly cast aside as Chrissie Watkins disrobed and went for a swim. By the time Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) asked Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) to help him stop a group of amateur fishermen overloading a decrepit wooden dinghy I knew I had never seen Jaws look so good nor heard it sound so divine.

For those who haven’t seen Steven Spielberg’s thrilling masterpiece the story begins when a young girl goes for a late night swim and is attacked by a shark. The town’s authority ignores the pleas of its Chief of Police to close the beaches, which leads to further deaths. Eventually succumbing to the request of the island’s best fisherman and professional shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) for a hefty sum of money in order to catch the deadly fish, the Mayor agrees to the pay up. Accompanied by marine biologist Hooper and police chief Brody, the three set out on Quint’s aging boat the Orca in order to kill the beast.

The film laid the groundwork for the modern day blockbuster and forever secured Spielberg’s place as a Hollywood legend. Made for the now seemingly tiny sum of $9 million (which was way over the film’s originally intended budget), its worldwide grosses topped $450 million. Of course, it is little surprise the film wowed audiences. Its relatively simple premise offered the perfect framework to hang a number of choreographed scares while its implied violence meant it could appeal to audiences young and old. To this day it is still the quintessential high concept thriller – leanly plotted, paced like an out of control freight train careering down Ben Nevis, and featuring the greatest jump-out-of-your-seat moment ever seen.

It also contains one of John Williams’ finest scores and that great “der-der…der-der” two-note progression denoting the shark’s predatory appearance. This isn’t the only piece of technical ingenuity found in the film with Verna Fields’ Oscar-winning editing and Bill Butler’s groundbreaking photography supporting the passion, imagination and youthful drive of the film’s twenty-nine-year-old director. Jaws isn’t just a very well made film, it is undoubtedly one of the best, most widely loved and iconic Hollywood movies ever made.

Most interestingly, its success as a thrilling exhibition of terror may have more to do with a misfiring prop. Spielberg sensed his costly mechanical shark could make a mockery of the film given its constant malfunctions.

Yet, most interestingly, its success as a thrilling exhibition of terror may have more to do with a misfiring prop. Spielberg sensed his costly mechanical shark could make a mockery of the film given its constant malfunctions. For starters, the non-absorbent neoprene foam that encased the model would absorb liquid causing the various robotic sharks to turn into Michelin men. Owing to delays caused by other factors and a budget spiralling out of control, Spielberg decided that the less the audience sees of Jaws the better. It turned out to be the best decision he ever made.

This “less is more” idea is one of the film’s greatest attributes and one that comes to the fore on the big screen. It is also the reason it is so effective. In The Exorcist, William Friedkin frequently chose to shoot Ellen Burstyn’s reaction to the horror she was seeing from her child prior to showing the horror itself. It is a prudent policy, especially in films dealing with the supernatural, because it familiarises the audience with a fear we recognise. We can see authentic suffering before we have to suspend our disbelief in something paranormal.

Similarly, in Jaws, Spielberg hides the shark beneath the water so the monster remains largely unseen. We are therefore shown the reactions of others to build our own interpretation of what lies in wait. In addition to this, Spielberg uses visual motifs to represent the shark’s existence and predatory prowess while hiding its actual form. This not only allows Spielberg to sidestep his problem with a malfunctioning prop but play of the audience’s perception of the monster. It builds the tension while we await the full reveal, akin to a magician hiding the rabbit.

Certainly, on my latest viewing of Jaws, it was the visual representation of the shark – or monster – that was the most interesting. Even when we have seen Jaws, the big fish remains mainly out of sight. Most of the time we only see the yellow barrels, harpooned into its body in order to draw it to the surface, dragging in its wake. Elsewhere the shark’s current presence is represented as a piece of broken wooden pier or the mere appearance of its dorsal fin. Even more devastating is Spielberg’s depiction of the shark in the aftermath of its attacks – from Deputy Hendricks finding the severed arm of Chrissie Watkins to the late night trip to find local fisherman Ben Gardner’s damaged boat floating aimlessly in the water and the revelation of both a huge, fang-like tooth and the dead body of the fisherman himself.

To this day it is still the quintessential high concept thriller – leanly plotted, paced like an out of control freight train careering down Ben Nevis, and featuring the greatest jump-out-of-your-seat moment ever seen.

The culmination of these visual clues heightens tension as we hurtle towards the film’s sensational climax. Watch out for Hooper’s anguished retort when Brody accidentally pulls the wrong cord allowing the diver’s oxygen cylinders to hit the boat’s metallic deck. “You screw around with these tanks and they’re going to blow up!” It’s a good job Brody has a good memory, and is handy with a rifle!

Watching Jaws on the big screen was a wonderful experience. Of the eight films I consider as definitive favourites, and immovable from my all-time top 10, I’ve now managed to see two on the big screen. While I won’t reveal the eight I will say the other film I managed to catch on its re-release into theatres was Ridley Scott’s majestic space-horror Alien. Seeing Jaws displayed thirty feet high also made me reconsider my decision to place Jaws second behind Close Encounters of the Third Kind in my top 10 Steven Spielberg films. That choice, and the inclusion of films like E.T., Indiana Jones and Saving Private Ryan, highlight the unending talent of this marvellous filmmaker.

For more on Steven Spielberg read my top 10 Spielberg films and top 10 films made by Spielberg as Producer

Reacting to terror…

Mrs Kintner is powerless to stop the shark killing her son…

Matt Hooper sees something nasty…

Chief Brody sees the shark for the first time and utters that immortal line…something about “bigger boats”…

Chrissie Watkins screams in agony as the shark attacks her…

Deputy Hendricks finds Chrissie Watkins’ severed arm…

Brody’s teenage son is horrified as the shark attacks…

Less is more…

…a severed arm…

…shark bites in boat…

…Oh, what big teeth you have…

…the shark drags a broken wooden pier in its wake…

…barrels, harpooned into the shark show its location…

…that iconic dorsal fin peeping predatorily from the water’s surface…

For more on Steven Spielberg read my top 10 Spielberg films and top 10 films made by Spielberg as Producer

Written by Daniel Stephens

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About the Author
Editor of Top 10 Films, Dan Stephens is usually found pondering his next list. An unhealthy love of 1980s Hollywood sees most of his top 10s involving a time-travelling DeLorean and an adventurous archaeologist going by the name Indiana.

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  1. Avatar
    Fogs Reply

    Nice read, Dan. I enjoyed that for sure. 😀

    You’re right, the less is more approach is brilliant here. I think we all know now that a lot of the was a fortuitous accident due to the animatronics not working, but it’s soooo effective, no matter how it comes about.

    I had never really seen anyone really focus on the prevalence of reaction shots in the film. There’s tons of them, you’re right. And they absolutely work wonders, too.

    Excellent piece…

  2. Avatar
    Steve Aldersley Reply

    I’m glad you had the opportunity to see Jaws on the big screen. I love the dialogue when the three are on the boat waiting for the shark to appear. I’ll be pouncing on that Blu-ray too.

  3. Avatar
    le0pard13 Reply

    I would say, JAWS on the big screen, one loaded with other moviegoers, is truly THE way to experience this. It just doesn’t get any better than that. Great examination, Dan.

  4. Avatar
    mark Reply

    Years and years ago (the mid 70s, in fact) there was a British film publication called Films Illustrated. In one edition, they interviewed Spielberg just as the film was being released.

    At the time he said one of the things that made him want to do the film was the fact that one day, after reading the book, he went to the beach and waded out to waist deep water before realising he couldn’t see anything beneath the surface. From this he saw the potential (of the above mentioned unseen monster)….

    An interesting story, particularly when one stumbles across Pete Biskind’s Easy Riders Raging Bulls which, in part, reads: “Spielberg didn’t much like Benchley’s script for Jaws. None of the characters were likable, and he said that when he read the book he rooted for the shark.”

    Later …: “Spielberg was convinced, as he recalls, ‘that it was just an exploitation movie, Moby Dick without Melville, without the eloquence’.”

    If anything, this partly explains why the book and film were so different. Given the success of the outcome, I guess Spielberg eventually found his sea legs …

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    Pete Reply

    Thank the movie lord for misfiring props and constant malfunctions. Might have given Spielberg a nightmare on set and the money men heart attacks but without it, this film could have potentially been a laughing stock! Must be great to see on the big screen. Hope that one day you will get top see your 8 other favourites up there too!

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    Raghav Reply

    Great write-up Dan. Although I did not see the re-release in a theatre but I think it is a great thing that classics are being shown again in theatres. Like you said we have grown up watching and admiring and talking about these movies, but in many cases we have only seen them on VHS and not in theatres. Jaws remains one of the very first summer blockbusters probably starting the trend and it’s great that you featured it.

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    Scott Lawlor Reply

    Fantastic article matey. I really enjoyed the read. I love the earlier Spielberg films much more than his recent fare.

    I am jealous you got to see this on the big screen!!

  9. Avatar
    Dan Grant Reply

    Jaws is my favourite movie. It’s not even close. I too have not seen it on the big screen, but that is going to chance on February 6th. The local Cineplex is having a week of classics. JAWS is one of them.

    Watching it on BR, you so much that you couldn’t before. It is the single best BR transfer I have ever seen and well worth the $25.00 I spent on it.

    Great article Dan.

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