Jaws Review

Steven Spielberg's Jaws has passed into movie legend so comprehensively that it's hard to separate the film from the hype. It was the first film ever to gross more than $100 million at the box office - the yardstick by which genuine blockbusters are measured - and if receipts are adjusted for inflation it's still comfortably one of the most successful films ever made.

More to the point, it was the precursor of the "high-concept" summer hit, whose essential plot could be written on the back of a postage stamp - shark kills people; people hunt shark - and as a result Jaws is often scapegoated as being one of the prime suspects in terms of causing the destruction of what many people regard as the golden age of intelligent, genuinely adventurous American film-making (roughly 1969-76).

Personally, I think these attacks are more than a little unfair, for two reasons. First, Jaws is not only a damn good film by any sensible yardstick, but it's also an impressively complex, surprisingly adult piece of work that never once panders to the lowest common denominator that's all too often seen as making up the typical blockbuster audience. And secondly, the so-called "golden age" was more of a historical accident than a particularly systematic triumph of Art over Commerce - essentially, Hollywood lost its way in the late Sixties and were terrified by the success of Easy Rider, but gradually, and arguably inevitably, managed to claw its way back.

As that capsule summary in the second paragraph implies, Jaws is a film of two clearly demarcated - and very different - halves. The first, set in the fictional resort town of Amity, is largely landlocked, and mainly focuses on the political infighting that follows the discovery of a chewed-up body on the beach: essentially, police chief Brody (Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches down immediately while mayor Harry Vaughn (a wonderfully slimy Murray Hamilton) thinks it's all blown up out of all proportion and certainly not worth risking Amity's tourist income over.

Needless to say, Vaughn's decision to keep the beaches open has disastrous consequences, which leads to the second, entirely ocean-bound second half, in which Brody, gnarled and leathery fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) and diminutive and excitable marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) attempt to hunt the shark down and kill it, an exercise that involves much waiting around and some hilarious macho posturing - though what's so refreshing about returning to Jaws after seeing the rest of Spielberg's output is that it's played out by totally convincing three-dimensional adults. Rather more so, I'd argue, than they were in Peter Benchley's original novel, where Quint in particular was little more than a cipher, and Hooper spent much of his time romancing Brody's wife (this was wisely cut at the script stage).

The casting is faultless - Spielberg wisely shunned big-name stars and chose a trio of superb character actors, with Scheider acting as the middle-man between Shaw (rugged man of nature) and Dreyfuss (wimpish man of science and technology), whose double-act supplies some of the funniest moments in the film (their relationship is best summed up in the scene where Quint finishes swigging his beer and crushes the can with just one hand, followed by Hooper squashing his pathetic little plastic cup, or the scene where they show off their shark-related scars - I loved the bit where Brody quickly sneaks a look at his appendix scar halfway through!).

Bruce the mechanical shark is admittedly less successful, though I'm glad that rumours that the film was going to be tarted up Star Wars style with CGI "improvements" turned out to be untrue (I was none too convinced by the CGI sharks in Deep Blue Sea!). Wisely, Spielberg refrains from showing the shark at all - the odd glimpse of fin apart - for the first hour, and its total screen time is minimal considering how its shadow looms large over every single scene, though this ensures that it packs a Tyson-like punch when it finally emerges full-length.

To this day, I have no idea how Jaws got away with a PG certificate - not only is it gorier than quite a few 18-certificate horror films I can think of, it's also ten times scarier. I can think of very very few films that make you realise just how fragile the human body can be - the first half is dominated by shots of bare legs dangling in the water: more appetising shark bait it would be hard to imagine. Even umpteen viewings on, the night-time scene exploring Ben Gardner's boat (or the hole underneath it) makes me jump out of my skin, not because of what's in the boat itself (that's purely there for shock value) but because of the possibility that something rather bigger and nastier - and much more alive - might be mere seconds away.

But Jaws is far more than just a series of virtuoso set-pieces, brilliant though these are (Verna Fields won a richly-deserved Oscar for her editing): there's real dramatic meat here as well. Shaw's great speech about the wreck of the Indianapolis (partly written by John Milius and indeed rewritten by Shaw, a playwright in his own right) is as gripping as any of the more obviously cinematic moments - indeed, many reckon it's the high point of the film.

I honestly don't think Spielberg has scaled these heights again - his subsequent films have either tended towards the simplistically cartoony (Indiana Jones, Hook, Jurassic Park) or the worthy but over-earnest (Schindler's List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan). More significantly, there's virtually none of the sentimentality that mars his later work (the scenes with Brody's family certainly foreshadow later developments, but work powerfully in context here). He's gained plenty of detractors over the years - and not entirely undeservedly - but anyone who doubts what a genuinely great director he can be should watch Jaws again, and marvel.

For the most part, the DVD picture is excellent - anamorphic, framed at the correct 2.35:1 aspect ratio, pin-sharp and artefact-free. Just about the only thing that stops it getting full marks is that there are a number of age-related spots and scratches, and although they're never remotely obtrusive it's a pity that Universal couldn't have had them digitally removed: I can't imagine it would have been that difficult. But there's no question the film has never looked this good on the small screen before, or that most people will be more than satisfied.

The sound is a different matter, though, and I have to say I have definite reservations about Universal's approach here. The problem is that a mono original has been remixed into Dolby Digital 5.1... and while the result isn't quite as blatant as certain Hong Kong films I can think of, it is still all too obviously a mono film at base - the dialogue and principal sound effects are firmly centre stage, with only a few instances of background sound given the full surround treatment.

John Williams' beyond-legendary score is, unsurprisingly, the main beneficiary, and when it's playing on its own it sounds wonderful - but when dialogue has been laid on top the balance is somewhat awkward, not least because the quality of the music recording is conspicuously higher than the slightly compressed film soundtrack. To be fair, in general it sounds amazingly good for a 25-year-old film, but I wish Universal had taken the trouble to include the original mono track, if only to shut up curmudgeons like me (and while I'm having a good whinge, the lack of an isolated score is a sorely missed opportunity).

Although there are plenty of extras on an item-by-item basis, I have to say that they generally add up to a Bowfinger rather than a Brazil: only a few are genuinely essential, and most of those are marred by poor design. The chief omissions are anything extra on the soundtrack - I've already mentioned the lack of an isolated score, and the disc also doesn't have a commentary, which is very disappointing given that nearly all the major participants in the film (Robert Shaw being the most notable exception) are still alive and clearly only too happy to talk about the film, as the list of interviewees for the documentary reveals all too clearly.

But enough complaining - let's focus on what you do get. There are the usual basics: some relatively brief production notes, biographies and filmographies (for the three leads and Spielberg), plus some equally basic textual information about sharks - this could have gone a lot further. There's also a set of "recommendations" (just DVD covers, no trailers), though I doubt anyone other than the most seriously committed auteurist is likely to take them up on, say, Always! And for those with a PC and DVD-ROM drive, there's a Jaws screensaver.

The multiple trailers, out-takes and deleted scenes are rather more interesting, though hampered by the annoying decision to lump them all together in generic clumps instead of indexing each item separately. The out-takes are skimpy in the extreme: essentially two of them, though I couldn't help wondering if the word that Roy Scheider utters after his gun fails to go off for the umpteenth time in a row is going to make it onto the BBFC-approved R2 edition! (Actually, the funniest out-takes - of Peter Benchley fluffing his lines during his brief cameo, or the shark's fin inadvertently revealing that it wasn't connected to a shark's body - are included in the documentary).

More interesting is a set of ten deleted scenes (more family life with the Brodys, a scene where the first victim's companion describes her disappearance, the moment when Vaughan first hears about the shark attack in the middle of a parade, a somewhat incongruous scene involving Quint in a music shop, a scene where Brody despairs at all the no-hopers after the $3,000 bounty, a scene where these no-hopers spend more time fighting each other than hunting the shark, and so on) - though, as ever, it's all too easy to see why they were deleted! (Not insignificantly, all these scenes were cut from the first half of the film). As with the trailers and out-takes, they're in non-anamorphic NTSC, though the quality is impressively high considering that many such scenes on other DVDs have been sourced from tenth-generation videotape.

The well-presented trivia quiz is fun - and surprisingly difficult - though the "prize" you get for getting all twelve questions right is a bit of an anticlimax (just a clip from the film, though I won't give away which one here).

The stills gallery is one of the largest I've ever encountered, featuring 20 pictures of Spielberg, 34 pictures of Spielberg directing his cast, 18 pictures of the producers, 51 pictures of the cast and crew in action, 112 behind-the-scenes shots, 50 shots of real and mechanical sharks, 13 shots of clowning around between takes, 6 shots of the music recording sessions, 35 posters, ads and lobby cards, 10 book and magazine covers, 13 spin-off toys and games, 40 foreign posters and lobby cards (French, Spanish, German, Japanese and British), 7 Oscar campaign ads, and a brief coda of jokey spin-offs (Mad magazine covers, Chuck Jones cartoons, and the like) - it's hard to think of a single area that hasn't been comprehensively covered.

However, it's mildly marred by the fact that the images are distinctly fuzzy, and seriously marred by the usual ultra-primitive back-and-forth navigation that bedevils most of these galleries. What's really unforgivable is that it isn't even broken up into separate sections - which means that if you fancy looking at, say, the US posters, you have to scroll through a triple-figure number of stills beforehand, thus guaranteeing that most people will only look at it once. Do distributors ever bother to think about the end user? On this evidence, and that of countless other DVDs, I doubt it.

The same problem mars an otherwise fascinating collection of 194 storyboards, which include conceptual illustrations taken from scenes in the novel that were never shot (Hooper's original death scene, for instance). But, as above, the navigation is so hopeless that you're unlikely to come back for more.

I've saved the best to the end, though it's first on the extras list - an hour-long retrospective documentary that covers just about everything you could reasonably want to know about Jaws. First of all, Peter Benchley describes the genesis of the novel (and its literally last-minute title!), then producers Richard D Zanuck and David Brown describe its acquisition and development, then Spielberg largely takes over the story.

It's well-researched enough to feature clips from Duel (rightly, as the similarities with Jaws are large and obvious), plenty of behind-the-scenes footage (I particularly liked the shots of the mechanical shark in action - or not, depending on its mood), together with some riveting clips of the real-life shark footage shot for but not used in the film.

Other interviewees include actors Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Susan Backlinie (who played the shark's first victim), co-writer/supporting actor Carl Gottlieb, production designer Joe Alves, director of photography Bill Butler, editor Verna Fields, composer John Williams, stuntmen Ted Grossman and Richard Warlock, and shark experts Ron and Valerie Taylor, which should give you an idea of the areas covered (pretty well all of them).

All in all, this is a good if never quite great DVD - comfortably up to Universal Collector's Edition standards, but we've been spoiled in recent months with the envelope-pushing likes of The Abyss and Fight Club, and Jaws is clearly a far more important film than either. There's a huge amount of material on the disc, but much of it is let down by poor design and navigation, meaning that few people will explore it more than once. Still, the bottom line is that this is by far the best small-screen version of Jaws to date, and that's certainly worth something.

[Jaws is also available in a DTS version, which I haven't sampled - though given the clear limitations of the original recording I'm somewhat sceptical as to whether it can offer much of an improvement. Still, the package appears to be identical in terms of extras, so it's not as hard a decision as it might otherwise be!]

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