Jaws ★★★★½

My first trip back to the cinema in over 6 months, since lockdown measures were introduced. I was mainly motivated by the chance to see Spielberg's Man Vs Nature classic on the big screen for the first time but in a way, it's also the perfect analogue for the current situation. For around half of its runtime, the film looks at the conflict of interests arising from those primarily concerned with public safety and the commercial lobby, motivated purely by economic expedience. The mayor of Amity Island gets his July 4th blow-out, even personally encouraging beach-goers to enter the water (which appears increasingly sinister the more you think about it), despite the expert's warning that's he's going to be laying on a free buffet for the great white still patrolling their waters. This, in the face of clear evidence presented by marine biologist Hooper that the shark that killed Chrissie is not the same tiger shark that's caught early on. Vaughn ignores the evidence at hand and instead spins a story around the bird in the hand, or more accurately the fish on the hook, aiming to re-galvanize consumer confidence. It takes several more shocking blood baths for him to reluctantly change course and admit the necessity of tackling the problem head on.

Jaws is without a doubt the film that did more damage to sharks' reputation than any other cultural artifact in history. It's estimated that around 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year, mainly due to the practice of shark finning. I don't need to say where the main market for shark fins is; an area of the world which, on balance, causes more headaches for conservationists than any other. Despite the fact its key ingredient is tasteless, the demand for shark fin soup in its country of origin has never diminished and dried fins are sold in vast quantities for a variety of other baseless 'uses'. Conversely, your chances of being killed by a shark attack are vanishingly small. In 2019, there were 5 fatal attacks (only 2 of which confirmed to be unprovoked), in line with an annual global average of 4 fatalities a year, according to Florida Museum's International Shark Attack File.

That said, it's still, undeniably, a legendary film - the finest of Spielberg's directorial career for my money, and a summer blockbuster the likes of which now seems like a distant dream; lean, intelligent and full of heart. At its core it's a riveting three-hander, a conflict of personalities, with Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss all bringing their A-games. The shark hunt itself and the action that unfolds is tense and gripping but almost more fascinating is the developing relationship of the three men in intimate isolation. Quint vs Hooper is a colliding of two worlds, represented by Shaw's veteran fisherman and privileged 'college boy' Hooper (a brilliantly nuanced performance by Dreyfuss; my personal favourite character, as he's the one I most identify with). Initially fiery, their exchanges begin to mellow as a grudging respect develops between them. Quint's extraordinary soliloquy about the massive loss of life sustained with the sinking of the USS Indianoplis is an electrfying moment that changes the raucous mood in the cabin in an instant. It alerts both Brody and Hooper to the fact that there are hidden depths to Quint beneath his abrasive surface, much like the sea he calls home. Roy Scheider as Brody is perhaps the least obviously interesting of the three, but he's the glue that binds, the real point of identification for the audience (highlighted by the fact he's the only one whose private life we're privy to) and his very humane portrayal of Brody is compelling - a flawed but deeply humane individual.

The support work is solid all round, but particularly strong from Murray Hamilton as the town's reprehensible authority figure and Lorraine Gary as Brody's wife Ellen - given little to do outside of wringing her hands and offering moral support to her husband, but it's still a crucial role. She offers a different perspective on events and her convincing portrayal heightens the horror of the situation, raising the stakes not just for Brody, but by proxy, the whole community.

The greatest supporting role though, is obviously Bruce, without whose reliable villainy there would be no movie. A razor-lined and blood-smeared moving chasm, a "perfect engine... an eating machine'" as Hooper refers to him as, recalling Ash's description of the xenomorph as the perfect organism. It reflects a similar level of fearful admiration; experts who understand their objects of study implicitly and respect the threat they pose. Those black, dead eyes convey nothing save a rapacious appetite; a biological machine honed by evolution to predatory perfection. The sight of the huge body, its tensile muscularity, gliding silently under the water, fins cutting the surface as a visible auger of doom, never fails to set the heart racing. Some of my favourite shots of the film, filmed underwater, of swimmers high above emphasize their vulnerability; defenseless packages of meat on the very surface of the hunter's domain, incalculably vast and dark.

Spielberg and DP Bill Butler's camerawork is one of the film's greatest strengths - one of my absolute favourite shots comes right at the beginning with the lens low to the water, capturing the sun's dying rays over the dark blue expanse - beauty and ominousness combined. Another is the pull-away zoom as Brody's worst fears are realized; a sickening moment of apprehension. John Williams's score is of course iconic but I like it better in its quieter moments - it's incongruously jaunty at times, and occasionally overly bombastic with the rising action. I prefer it when it's operating in a lower register, just hinting at the menace lurking below; the monstrous id underlying mankind's fragile ego.

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