Buh-duh. Buh-duh. Ba-duh-duh-duh-duh-duh.
We’ve all heard that intense, driving two-note score that John Williams wrote for Jaws in 1975, and have subsequently held our breath as we watch the camera push through water along the ocean floor, driving steadily upwards towards flailing limbs just waiting to be chomped by what lies beneath. The only thing is…we’ve since seen this moment replicated and regurgitated again and again almost so that it has lost its original impact; the notes seem lulled to a hum, the severe maiming and blood-strewn waters passé.
It is undeniable that Jaws had a palpable impact on pop culture and film history, not only solidifying Steven Spielberg as one of the world’s most influential directors, but also paving the way for big budget, spectacle films of the future, as it is often cited as the world’s first “blockbuster.” However, Jaws also inspired a wave (maritime pun intended) of shark-related content, leading to immediate rip-off features, three more films culminating in the Jaws franchise, and ultimately, as many would argue, the formation of the “ killer shark genre” which continues to dole out movies once every few years. Of particular note, however, is how the films in this category have been received over their forty-year history. Jaws was both commercially and critically successful, a precedent that has been unmatched by every successive film falling within the shark genre, as most content is either made-for-TV movies aimed at summertime Shark Week viewers (a phenomenon currently celebrating its 25th anniversary) or gore-happy horror buffs.
So what is it about Jaws that makes it a seminal film where its sequels and genre-sharers have failed? To find out, I went through hell for you people. I watched a myriad of shark films, including the four films of the Jaws franchise, Deep Blue Sea, Shark Night 3D, Sharknado, 47 Meters Down, and The Shallows, taking a closer (and extremely interminable) look into the genre to question this phenomenon and the overall impact of the film that started it all. So you better enjoy this.
To start, let’s first dive in (maritime pun most definitely intended) to the Jaws franchise itself. When the first film was released over forty years ago, it was met with four Academy Award nominations and a record-breaking $470 million gross, with critics like Derek Malcolm of The Guardian calling it “a splendidly shrewd cinematic equation that concentrates on getting the basics of good story-telling right.” This is a marked change from where the franchise ended up, as twelve years later, Roger Ebert remarked that the fourth film in the series, Jaws: The Revenge “is not simply a bad movie, but also a stupid and incompetent one.” So what exactly is it about these latter films that made them so repellent? A simple answer could be franchise fatigue, but I rather argue that it’s what these films and the future shark movies they inspired continually neglect to realize; it isn’t the shark that made Jaws a hit, it’s the humanity.
Think about it: Jaws is primarily the story of newcomer Police Chief Brody trying to adapt to a new environment, build a reputation for himself, and to save his town from an unwanted danger. It’s about his need to protect his family, and his partnership with the characters Hooper and Quint to put an end to the town’s attacker. It, at its core, is a survival film rooted in human relationships. Actual shark-on-man action scenes are rather limited when compared to expositional dialogue.
In contrast, one needs only view pretty much any other shark movie in existence, where carnage eclipses story 99% of the time. The Jaws sequels do little in regard to character development and get increasingly gorier, capitalizing on the visual spectacle of their horror rather than on character relationships. Similarly, the Sharknado franchise (now about to enter its sixth iteration) has been a windfall for the Syfy Channel, with a repeated plot so genuinely mind-numbing, I dare not further elaborate lest I go braindead altogether.
Something that these post-Jaws movies share further is that the offending shark at the forefront of the plot becomes a vindictive villain with intent to target specific individuals, rather than a merely dangerous animal with killer instincts terrorizing a regional area. While Jaws’s antagonist is undoubtedly an eating machine, it is never contextualized as a character capable of premeditated murder. In contrast, the sequels straight up enter the realm of the ridiculous, suggesting that not only had the attacking shark in each of the films been the same shark whose miraculous, self-regenerative powers after having been stabbed, blown up, and electrocuted are otherwise never addressed, but also that it has some personal vendetta against the Brody family in particular, even so much as to follow them on a family trip to the Caribbean at one point.
More modern films like Deep Blue Sea and Shark Night 3D also depict their shark-tagonists as monstrosities rather than animals, albeit man-made monstrosities with a desire to do nothing but kill for sport. It goes to show that what seems to have stuck with those impacted by the trail Jaws blazed was the tension, jump scares, and violence, which these subsequent films have capitalized on to a gratuitous extent. That said, did I thoroughly enjoy watching Katherine McPhee get savaged by a hoard of cookiecutter sharks in Shark Night 3D? Damn straight I did. I’m not even going to attach a spoiler warning with this–it happened, and the world deserves to know.
And that seems to be exactly the point—audiences enter these sorts of films with a singular expectation for the sake of the thrills. But does that mean that we can’t also be challenged by our two-hour gore fest? It is interesting to note that I came across two of this genre made within the past two years that have seemed to pull from Jaws’s original model and have as such received higher critical praise accordingly. 47 Meters Down centers on the relationship between two sisters trapped in a shark cage at the bottom of the sea as they fight for their lives. The Shallows depicts one woman’s difficulties in letting go of her deceased mother that leads to her having to forge and trust her own path as she battles a shark who has her stranded. Here, Jaws’s influence is felt in that the carnivorous threats have no exterior motive but to eat and survive, which simply opposes the characters’ needs to protect themselves and their families.
In looking ahead to the future of this genre, The Shallows director Jaume Collet-Serra made an astute observation when he noted, “Audiences haven’t seen this realistic approach to a shark movie in a while. It’s not like it’s brand new, it just hasn’t been done for some time. And I’m sure there are going to be many more shark movies after this and they’ll feature huge sharks and big effects. But for now, the realistic approach is appealing to audiences.” I would argue that it is the combination of both realism along with the elements of humanism that contributed to Jaws’s critical successes, providing audiences with both thrills and empathetic characters. Though its stylistic influence can be felt throughout, it is the absence of these two qualities that will always keep Jaws a film apart within its own genre.
Collet-Serra is right—the shark film certainly won’t be slowing its occasional roll-out of gory spectacles anytime soon, as in just a matter of days, the Jason Statham-starrer The Meg will terrorize moviegoers, its tagline presently reading as “Pleased to eat you.” But it is the heart of the story (cold-blooded or otherwise) that creates legitimacy.