By: Erik Swift
Ah, summer. Grills are lit, weekends are idle, school is out, baseball is played everywhere and beers always taste good. Vacations are never more appropriate, and travelers have a wide variety of choices in America – surfing in Huntington, hiking the Appalachians, canoeing the Colorado River or road tripping with buddies or family are some of the many options available. Of late I prefer New England, despite a recent saturation of Red Sox championship gear. For the uninitiated, the fabulous shore areas of Mystic, Newport and Cape Cod have been gorgeous retreats to not only New Yorkers and Bostonians bolting the stress of city life, but anyone looking to escape the grind. Martha’s Vineyard is another area where lighthouses dot the coast and waves crash lazily on sand that glistens with sparkling mother-of-pearl dust. Its breezy sunlit beaches typify a Northeast getaway, and they famously embodied the fictional town of Amity in Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.”
Devouring all previous records upon its 1975 release, “Jaws” was the highest-grossing film until “Star Wars” arrived two years later. The first movie to top $100 million, it ushered in the era of the summer blockbuster and caused studios to jockey for position with their titles to maximize profits. Three decades on this practice has become a box office death knell, and Hollywood has seen its revenues slide for months. Higher prices of gas and movie tickets and improved home entertainment systems are being blamed for keeping people away from theaters, but a lack of original product is a sure culprit. TV updates like “Bewitched,” “The Honeymooners” and “The Dukes Of Hazzard,” remakes of “The Longest Yard,” “The Bad News Bears” and “War Of The Worlds,” prequels to “Star Wars” and “Batman” and sequels to “The Love Bug” and “Night Of The Living Dead” are making the theater TOO recognizable. Familiarity need not always breed contempt, however. Old friends like “Jaws” and its 30th anniversary are worth celebrating with Universal’s massive double-disc DVD release of the film…just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.
“Jaws” memorably starts with a moonlit late-June shark attack, and the new chief of police Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) instantly takes measures to close Amity’s beaches and protect the population. Mayor Larry Vaughn (Murray Hamilton) interferes, claiming the chief’s actions will cost the town its summer tourism dollars as July 4th draws closer. Brody hedges until a boy is killed in another attack. His mother’s reward for the shark turns Amity into a Mecca for aquatic bounty hunters, which attracts oceanographer Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). Certain an unusually large great white is using Amity for underwater takeout, Hooper’s thoughts are heeded by Brody despite Vaughn’s stubborn ignorance that sets the stage for a third attack, the final straw. Enlisting Quint (Robert Shaw), the only fisherman in Amity ballsy and bold enough to take on a shark of its size, is the only option. Helming the Orca, the crusty old salt reluctantly teams with Brody and Hooper for an unforgettable confrontation between man and fish.
One of Hollywood’s biggest and brightest works, “Jaws” is an example of the extraordinary power a production can wield when everyone behind and in front of the camera are in perfect harmony. From Grammy to Oscar, John Williams wrote his epitaph with a score that won him an armful of awards. The screenplay by Carl Gottleib and “Jaws” author Peter Benchley trims his book’s fat and makes the final act – an epic 45-minute sea battle – tolerable. Brody, Hooper and Quint get on each other’s nerves often, and it’s uncanny how well the relatively novice Spielberg channels the isolation at sea and its effect on the characters into the script (especially Brody’s, who is afraid of the water). The director had been making movies since he was an Eagle Scout, directing one of the episodes of the “Night Gallery” pilot and knocking out “Duel” and “The Sugarland Express” before being hired to pull off “Jaws,” which he does with flying colors. Reminiscing of the early challenge, Spielberg says in Laurent Bouzereau’s “The Making of Jaws” that it “was a fun movie to watch, but not a fun movie to make.” Please. “Jaws” is the film that told the planet to believe the hype about this guy and its 30th anniversary DVD proves he was huge before it was released – a recently unearthed British documentary labels Spielberg ‘the latest American star behind the camera.’ Making its premiere in what is becoming an annual five-year update Universal Pictures’ package is sure to equally delight and enrage enthusiasts everywhere.
Wait a minute…enrage? That’s right, and here’s the issue: the legendary 20th anniversary laserdisc edition was up there with “Pulp Fiction,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” as the finest movie respect at the time. It pushed the laserdisc viewing experience to the limit, and included Bouzerau’s no-bullshit work that lasts as long as the film itself. Unfortunately, the 25th anniversary DVD annoyed purists, hacking Bouzereau’s film in half. The complete doc returns on the 30th anniversary’s bonus disc, accompanied by a plethora of storyboards and photos from the set, tons of deleted scenes, a killer 60-page bonus book and the aforementioned English production. So what is everyone bitching about? To start, the absence of trailers is a noticeable omission. The “Shark World” documentary is missing, as is the trivia game and screen savers from previous editions. Hold onto the other versions if living without them is tough. And anyone crying about the lack of a new documentary should clam it. None is needed when one from 1995 was meant to be the definitive last word. Ridiculous and unnecessary, it’s akin to updating “Hearts Of Darkness.”
Otherwise, this “Jaws” DVD is a meaty must-get. “The Making Of Jaws” is insanely exhaustive in its interviews and on-set and behind-the-scenes material. It provides fascinating insight, and both Spielberg’s home movies and live shark shots from Ron and Valerie Taylor are astonishing finds. Minor quotes and anecdotes add layers – discovering why Jamaica almost doubled for Amity over Martha’s Vineyard makes sense, and the crew’s mass food fight is a justifiable release after a maddeningly endless floating shoot. Anyone that’s ever worked on a movie set loves to mention Murphy’s Law; dubbing the mechanical shark the ‘great white turd’ makes it obvious that Murphy visited the “Jaws” set often. Words from Production Designer Joe Alves, Susan Backlinie (first victim Chrissie, who spoofed her work here when she reteamed with Spielberg in “1941”) and Benchley (whose double-screamer tale beats the hell out of most movie screening memories) strengthen an already meaningful two hours.
The best of the deleted scenes are Shaw’s. His Quint is one of the screen’s great characters, an unlikely ally of Brody and Hooper’s in their quest to fell the aquatic predator. Few performances stay as vivid over time, but Quint’s tale of the June 29, 1945 sinking of the USS Indianapolis (which was off by a month, actually sinking July 30) is a chilling monologue that sticks in the gut. It aligns with the roundhouse punch thrown at the audience in that scares are amplified by what is not seen. The film’s dock scene follows this pattern – its few minutes could have easily been excised: two fishermen on a pier tossing a hook into a hunk of meat and flinging it into the water shouldn’t induce terror. What does is the invisible shark that takes the bait and rips the dock away from its pilings; pulses shift into overdrive when the bobbing dock remnants turn to make a run for the fisherman floating in the water. It’s a tool only a skilled filmmaker can utilize, and Spielberg used it again with a glass of water in “Jurassic Park” rippling with each T Rex step. In itself, the object is not scary but what surrounds it can turn the object into an essential storytelling component.
Many films are pimped on a movie-buying public that’s getting smarter. Initially rushed to stores, they return months or years later as special collector’s editions or with a better transfer, etc. In a few years we’ll have HDVD to look forward to. Sooner or later studio heads that OK DVDs without upgrades or bonus features will get wise, but Universal only misses the boat by passing up the chance to make this 30th anniversary edition of “Jaws” a definitive one. Not including everything from the previous discs makes this less than essential but it’s still damn good-looking, sounds great, and is never boring after endless viewings. If you don’t have it yet, this is the one to get. Unlike its awful sequels, “Jaws” remains a classic.