I avoided seeing this for the longest time, not out of fear, but because of the damaging representation of sharks. Then I remembered that Jaws is a film, I know it is a fiction and I will not be turned against sharks by it. Furthermore, me not seeing it makes no difference to anyone else’s opinion, so I did. It was a very specific occasion – 30th December 2000, alone in my university room. I ordered pizza, drank Smirnoff Ice (I think) and enjoyed Spielberg’s mastery of suspense and the cinematic medium.
Spielberg is, for my money, the most accomplished director working in Hollywood, if not the world, today. Several of his films are regarded as masterpieces, such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Schindler’s List and, of course, Jaws. Specifically, Jaws is a masterpiece of suspense (also used to great effect in Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds), and despite having watched it multiple times, I always find my pulse quickening practically at the same tempo as John Williams’ score. Certain scenes are especially tense: the two fishermen who get yanked into the sea and are “chased” by a large piece of driftwood; the opening attack on the swimming girl; the attack on a small boy. Best of all is the night dive, when Hooper inspects a ruined boat underwater and finds a large tooth. As he inspects the tooth, the music playing, the viewer expects the shark to attack, but instead a decapitated head appears out of the hole in the boat. I screamed the first time I saw that, and I still scream (perhaps deliberately) in subsequent viewings, even though I know it’s coming.
The fact that my pulse accelerates and I jump and scream, even when I know what is coming, is testament to Jaws’ power. Once again, the threatening environment is as important in generating fear as the threatening presence. But whereas in Paranormal Activity the environment is mundane, in Jaws it is an alien and menacing world that can easily kill us. Most will agree that the shark itself look pretty fake and hardly menacing, but it pales in comparison to the vast, hungry, uncaring sea. Martin Brody’s (Roy Scheider) fear of drowning makes him our substitute, and the knowledge that, regardless of anything else, it is never completely safe to go into the water. The film epitomises an intractable adversary through the figure of the shark, presented not so much as an animal as a manifestation of the engulfing sea. This is a common use of animals as enemies in films – from the lions in The Ghost and the Darkness to the wolves in The Grey, animals do not express their real-world counterparts, but our fear of the wild, the unknown world beyond our own. The sea is perhaps the best example of this great unknown – an indifferent and all-consuming expanse. Jaws expresses this fear through its use of suspense and by playing upon our expectations, making it a consistently and repeatedly nerve-wracking experience.