Film and TV

Jaws: A Blockbuster Looks At 40

This Saturday will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of Jaws, Steven Spielberg's gripping tale of oral and maxillofacial surgeons learning to live and love while performing reconstructive surgery on the high seas.

Wait, let me start over. Jaws is about a great white shark that terrorizes a small, New England beach community. That's pretty much it. Everything that's came after — the blockbuster box office receipts, the sequels, the demonization of superorder Selchimorpha, and the transformation of the American movie-making industry — were all secondary to the story of summer tourism economics and the dangers of compressed air.

The movie's impact is as ubiquitous as it is undeniable: Quint's Indianapolis speech; "You're gonna need a bigger boat;" farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies; the last time Spielberg killed a kid (Schindler's List doesn't count); "There's a clinical name for it, isn't there?" "Drowning." I could go on, and have. Just ask my wife.

But there have already been reams (or the internet equivalent ... giga-reams?) written about the movie's importance on our cultural landscape, and I've read more than most. I've also seen a couple of the documentaries (The Shark is Still Working, Inside Jaws), read the novel (before I saw the movie; more on that later), and obsessively watched all the special features on the 25th anniversary DVD and the Universal 100th Anniversary Blu-ray. I've probably obsessed more about Jaws than I have about any other movie(s): not the James Bond franchise, not Spice World.

Though it's close with Spice World.

And though I read the book when I was six years old, my parents (rightfully) assumed I was too much of a coward to see it in the theater when it was released. I had to make do with my mom's plot summary after she went and saw it, and even that was enough to terrify me for years, until I finally did see it on the big screen, at the drive-in (woo hoo!) with my parents and little sister (never mind).

It's a weird love-hate, or maybe love-traumatize relationship. I've probably seen Jaws more than any other film besides Star Wars (and Spice World), and yet the entire late 1970s for me were haunted by the illusion of killer sharks. They showed up on newsstands, in magazines which I would spend untold hours reading, drinking in the lurid tales of sharks brutally devouring hundreds, nay thousands of people a year (naturally, I can find no online evidence of these mags; I swear they were real!). There were video games, and rip-offs (all of which I've seen, even Nightwing), and cultural appropriation. I actually wrote about many of these inspired-by-Jaws moments previously. Allow myself to quote ... myself:

I described this Hardy Boys episode to my friends as the ultimate confluence of all things '70s: Shaun Cassidy, surfing, sharks, and the Bread song "If" on a seemingly constant loop. If the powers that be had only found a way to merge this with "The Return of Bigfoot," in which Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers team up with Sasquatch to fight aliens, Iran would never have dared take our embassy.

All of this definitely had an effect on an impressionable youngster. I was terrified to take a bath, because I somehow managed to convince myself a 20-foot great white could navigate nonexistent pipes from the Atlantic to my bathtub. In Utah. I would sometimes awaken from nightmares convinced my bed was a raft and I was adrift in a Winslow Homer painting. This morbid fascination led me to read actual books (from the library!) about sharks, and it was in this way I came to realize they weren't the marine murder machines I'd come to fear.

Even so, Jaws damaged me in others ways. To wit: I now pretty much have to watch every shark-based movie that comes out, no matter how clearly terrible it will be. I went with my mother to Jaws 2 (not terrible) and Jaws: the Revenge (appalling), the movie Michael Caine missed picking up an Oscar for. I also convinced several of my high school friends we needed to see Jaws 3-D in the theater on opening weekend. Surprisingly, some of them still speak to me. 

I'm commemorating the 40th anniversary by going to see Jaws on the big screen for the first time in decades. You can get tickets here. The Alamo Drafthouse is also bringing back their Jaws on the Water event, where intrepid souls watch the film while floating on inner tubes in a lake. At night. Maybe I'll work up the nerve for that one on the 50th anniversary.

So happy anniversary to a movie that's been as much a part of my upbringing as Mr. Rogers or sensible vaccination schedules. Your effects were often cheesy, and you're directly responsible for the Sharknado movies, but I'll still be watching you for another 40 years.
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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
Contact: Pete Vonder Haar