Jaws at 40 – Think of the Children!

Despite Jaws only being a PG at the time of me watching it, I was far too young to see it and for much of my life up to now I have been plagued with fear when swimming in the sea. Yes, as insane as it seems, family holidays in Norfolk were made even more horrific by the irrational and sometimes crippling fear of great white sharks. It was the first film to affect me in such a noticeable way, and so far the only. 

And that is the genius behind Steven Spielberg’s 1975 masterpiece: describe the plot to someone not familiar with cinema and it sounds ridiculous, but to anyone who has seen it – and that is most people – it is quite simply terrifying. A man versus beast film that plays on the very human fear of being helpless in an environment where a supreme man-eating predator lurks. In this respect it is like Ridley Scott’s Alien, but here we are not comforted by the intergalactic distance: Spielberg’s film has the mundane and familiar setting of the beach. It is a film experience that has never been successfully replicated, and probably never will be.

Jaws couldn’t be made today because film-goers are far too cynical to see a serious drama about a giant killer shark. If they do, it’s in the form of some B-movie that hipsters giggle over like giddy teenagers. Jaws is special: it proves that brilliant unselfconscious films can be made about anything, and that even after 40 years it still has the same capacity to terrify the living daylights out of its audience.

Mark Kermode’s recent article in the Guardian offers a masterful description of this great film and the various theories behind it. Yet for me and my eleven year old self, it was as Spielberg notes, a film about a very big shark. It set in motion a fascination with animal rampage stories which were never fully satisfying: Lake Placid was too tongue in cheek, Deep Blue Sea the same, and books like Grizzly satisfied my child-self but looking back I am filled with a deep sense of disappointment. When I look at what films are to be released at the beginning of the year I pray for a film like Jaws, not just for a serious animal rampage story, but a mainstream film that sets up its premise with supreme confidence and runs with it. It’s one of the reasons I loved Interstellar and one of the reasons I still go to see big Hollywood blockbusters.

Jaws is vintage Spielberg; a filmmaker who at his best makes popular cinema unlike any other and at his worst vulgarises serious subjects like the Holocaust. Jaws is one of his masterpieces, a film that in another 40 years will still be making swimming difficult for sensitive children everywhere and for that I thank it.

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Ben Sayer

I love Beer and Film. That's all you need to know.