You can blame it all on Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975). As the lead member of the Bearded Film School Musketeers (along with George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Francis Ford Coppola), Spielberg and his temperamental rubber shark Bruce gave birth to the contemporary Blockbuster. Jaws was one of the first films to combine a pre-sold property that appeased to all four quadrants —a best selling book, a wide, seasonal release (films had often been slowly rolled out across the year, this one changed that), television advertising to capitalize on the nationwide release, all under the slick white skin of its horror genre reinvention. It changed the landscape of American film forever, for better and for worse, not only because of its industrial significance but because— unlike most of today’s blockbusters (Battleship)—it is a compelling, economical, and stylistically taut piece of filmmaking.
One of the first formal aspects that often comes to mind is how little you actually see the killer great white shark. Instead, Spielberg spends his screen time making us care about the people dealing with the potential disaster that is about to gobble up the beach community of Amity. We meet the “outsider,” Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), a former New York cop who is afraid of water yet finds himself surrounded by it. Soon, he stumbles upon the body of a gnarled up dead girl—whom the coroner has told him is a victim of a shark attack—and his first impulse is to close the beaches for the summer season. The town’s Mayor (Murray Hamilton) and small business owners refuse to let that happen and try to convince Brody that the town needs revenue from the summer’s tourism season and that the risk of another shark attack is at a minimum. Like most great horror, one might argue that the real monster isn’t the monster itself but the revision in morality its presence inspires.
Brody reluctantly agrees to the Mayor and the town’s wishes, which leads up to one of the film’s most audacious set pieces. Sitting on the beach, Brody anxiously watches for signs of a shark in the waters around the swimming townsfolk. Brody thinks he sees the dorsal of the shark . . . then his view becomes obstructed and it disappears. This gradual increase in tension is captured by Spielberg’s use of mise-en-scène to continually disrupt the point-of-view shot (which we share with Brody), which he interrupts further with alternating shot-reverse shot patterns and focal lengths. Essentially, each time someone crosses Brody’s field of vision, we have to start our hunt for the shark all over again. We, like Brody, become anxious and stressed out.
When the inevitable occurs again, Brody enlists the help of a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a grizzled fisherman (Robert Shaw) to hunt the shark down and secure the waters. Again, Spielberg puts the narrative emphasis on the ill-fated crew, choosing to spend more cinematic time on a discussion of scars than on gore-soaked shots of screaming bodies being slowly ripped apart. The end result is that we care when these people face danger and, through Spielberg’s mastery of film form, we share the danger with them. That’s why Jaws isn’t merely a significant Blockbuster, but a great film.