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Blu-ray Review: Jaws
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JawsJaws
Blu-ray
Directed by Steven Spielberg
Starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary
Universal Studios Home Entertainment
Release Date: August 14, 2012

One night during a party on the beaches of Amity Island, a New England community primarily known as a summertime destination, a young woman (Susan Backlinie) goes for a nude, moonlit swim in the ocean and is attacked and killed by an unseen force beneath the surface. The next morning her remains wash up on shore and are discovered by Amity police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider). Determining the woman’s death to be a shark attack the chief attempts to close the beaches in order to prevent further casualties, but is stonewalled by the town’s mayor Vaughan (Murray Hamilton), cautious to protect Amity’s reputation with the Fourth of July coming up. Some time later a little boy is eaten by the shark while playing in the water. His distraught mother offers up a sizable bounty to anyone who can kill the shark, bringing carloads of fishermen and hunters to Amity ready to claim the reward.

Marine biologist Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) also arrives on Amity to assist Brody and based on the bite marks left on the remains of the first victim he believes the shark is a great white, unheard of in the waters off Amity. The beaches remain open despite failed attempts to kill the shark and when the tourists descend on Amity for Independence Day the attacks intensify. With the lives of Amity’s citizens, including Brody’s own family, and the town’s future hanging in the balance, Brody and Hopper team up with local fisherman Quint (Robert Shaw) and head out to sea to confront and destroy the great white. It’s only after they’ve encountered the beast that they realize their enemy has been grossly underestimated. One thing’s for sure: they’re gonna need a bigger boat.

What can I say about Jaws that hasn’t already been said by virtually everyone in the free world? This film’s reputation is deservedly legendary. Thirty-seven years after Jaws was released to theaters and quickly made its way into the history books, popular culture, and the national consciousness, it remains the undisputed king of the summer blockbusters and one of the greatest motion pictures I have ever seen in my life. Watching it just recently on Universal’s impressive new Blu-ray was like seeing it for the first time all over again, which sounds ridiculous for someone who has watched this movie more times than a full episode of a network news program. Moreover, my initial viewing of this sparkling new transfer made me again realize why I love this movie so dearly.

Along with the first Star Wars, Jaws is widely credited as the movie that made the summer the biggest moviegoing season of the year. It has also been attributed with bringing about the slow, agonizing death of the new Hollywood that dominated the film industry in the 1970s and the subsequent rise of event films over the next three decades. Although both seem logical from a certain standpoint, only the latter seems unwarranted. Although Universal’s radical – for the time – marketing and release strategy would establish the formula for how the studios would sell and distribute their major films from here on they were merely capitalizing on the massive buzz surrounding the film. The production had gone more than 100 days over schedule and nearly tripled its original $3.5 million budget, but when the finished product was screened for preview audiences the response was so overwhelmingly positive that executives at Universal along with producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown and director Steven Spielberg – whose young career as a filmmaker was riding on the eventual reception of Jaws – knew they had a guaranteed smash hit. But it wasn’t until the movie was released to the public on June 20, 1975 that everyone involved with the making of Jaws realized that their troubled film would become a cultural touchstone whose staying far surpasses the bloated tentpole pictures we are subjected to during the summer nowadays.

Jaws is one of the rarest of beasts, a film that succeeds as both crowd-pleasing entertainment and cinematic art. Even the best blockbusters made in this day and age still have to pack a wallop in the effects and action set pieces departments. The centerpiece attraction of Spielberg’s sea water saga was a monstrous mechanical shark designed and executed by production designer Joe Alves and visual effects maestro Robert Mattey, the latter responsible for creating the giant squid from the classic Disney adventure 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. The shark, cheekily nicknamed “Bruce” by the crew in honor of their director’s attorney, was a marvel of frightening ingenuity when viewed in all its horrific splendor. However, the stories of the great mechanized beast’s refusal to operate properly during production have become legend in the industry. As a result Spielberg and his cast and crew were forced to work mostly without the use of their expensive effect and this massive technical shortcoming turned out to be the film’s salvation.

For inspiration in the filming of the shark attacks Spielberg looked to the films of cinema’s master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, who employed a “less in more” approach to the more terrifying moments in his two scariest films – Psycho and The Birds. During the first two acts of Jaws we hardly see the shark at all: a gaping mouth of razor-sharp teeth here, a pair of cold, lifeless eyes there. With the help of a cast full of committed performers and a few well-chosen props the director was able to suggest the presence of the killer shark in scenes even when it could barely be glimpsed on camera. It fell to us the audience to finish creating the horror in our minds, a technique The Texas Chainsaw Massacre had used to bring moviegoers around the world to their knees a year before the release of Jaws and that movies like the original Alien and The Blair Witch Project would employ successfully in the ensuing decades. The horror that our own imaginations can create is the most effective kind.

Working from a screenplay credited to Peter Benchley – the author of the novel on which the film was based – and Carl Gottlieb with several uncredited contributors, Spielberg fought tooth and nail and defied near-overwhelming odds to make a sensationally entertaining film full of fantastic scenes and wonderful little moments that I enjoyed seeing again during my viewing of Jaws for this review. The dialogue is endlessly quotable: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” “$10,000 for me by myself. For that you get the head, the tail, the whole damn thing.” “Well, this is not a boat accident! And it wasn’t any propeller, and it wasn’t any coral reef, and it wasn’t Jack the Ripper! It was a shark.” “When we get them silly bastards down in that rock pile, it’ll be some fun, they’ll wish their fathers had never met their mothers.” “Here’s to swimmin’ with bow-legged women.” And then there’s this priceless exchange between Brody and Hooper:

“It doesn’t make any sense when you pay a guy like you to watch sharks.”
“Well, uh, it doesn’t make much sense for a guy who hates the water to live on an island either.”
“It’s only an island if you look at it from the water.”
“That makes a lot of sense.”

It’s not just the great dialogue that makes the non-shark moments of Jaws a great pleasure to enjoy time and again. There are several brief but somber moments in the film that give the story the drama it sorely needs. For my money the most emotional scene is when Chief Brody by the grief-stricken mother (Lee Fierro) of the little boy who was killed by the shark. That’s when we realize that we’re not watching disposable characters getting ripped apart for our perverse pleasure but real human beings with lives and families forever destroyed by their deaths. It makes the terror genuine and palpable and raises the stakes considerably. Far too often creature features that came before and after Jaws don’t bother giving their characters any more than two dimensions and merely serve their function to the plot. It’s one of the main reasons why Spielberg’s film will always be the gold standard.

The real secret weapons in Spielberg’s arsenal for Jaws are his wonderfully realized characters, brought to vibrant life by one of the best casts any movie has ever had. That’s what really sets this film apart from the other features that have dominated the box office in summers since. Every character in Jaws, even the lesser ones who don’t seem that multi-dimensional on paper, contribute greatly to making the town of Amity Island a genuine living community that could exist beyond the silver screen. Casting moderately known and respected actors instead of high-profile movie stars in those parts adds to the heightened sense of verisimilitude Spielberg created for Jaws and would later use to great effect on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Front and center are the film’s three stars – Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw. Each actor goes beyond mere performance; at times they seem to be actually embodying their characters.

Scheider brings a world-weary credibility to his role as Chief Brody, a reluctant hero if there ever was one. While Brody is without question a decent cop and an all-around stand-up guy, you can admire Scheider wisely eschews overemphasizing those qualities in his performance. Most actors would go overboard to make the chief a paragon of virtue and morality cut from the mold of John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. In the hands of Scheider becomes an achingly human hero, an ordinary guy who moved to Amity to get away from the chaos of living and working as a cop in New York City only to find himself overwhelmed by a threat he can’t begin to comprehend. It’s one of the late actor’s finest performances; when Brody is the last man standing left to battle the shark at the film’s conclusion you’ll cheer him as he rises to become the hero everyone knew he could be.

Matching (and almost outclassing at times) Scheider in the acting department are Richard Dreyfuss as Hooper and Robert Shaw as Quint. Let’s start with Dreyfuss’ performance. Here he’s playing another of the tried-and-true archetypes of monster movies, the sensitive intellectual/scientist/some other kind of expert on what’s going down, but never once falling into playing a single note cipher. Dreyfuss is ideally cast as Hooper because in many ways the character is an extension of the actor’s own personality: Hooper is brilliant, fearless, quirky, sardonic, sweet, and a mite prickly. He doesn’t shy from expressing his opinions, he can get visibly angry if someone pushes him into it, and when it’s time for action he’s willing to lock himself into an underwater shark cage just so he can get up close and personal with the great white. Hooper is one of the best characters in the movie and Dreyfuss makes him a unique and memorable person you can empathize with and root for.

Completing the trifecta of Jaws‘ acting master class is Shaw, the crusty veteran fisherman unafraid of dealing directly with Amity’s shark problem if the price is right. The blockbuster success of Jaws spawned countless seafaring horror rip-offs and most of them had a Quint-type character in their cast, but there was usually nothing to those characters outside of being foul-mouthed and cantankerous, which is very easy to accomplish because all the actor would have to do is act like they are after waking up in the morning. Shaw takes the common characterization to a level that has remained untouched since. He gives Quint great depth and charisma with a welcome infusion of seawater and gin-soaked wisdom and wit that makes the character rich and likable even when he’s hurling insults and acting like he’s about to go off the deep end. Best of all Quint is the focus of the film’s most remembered scene, a chilling monologue that has become known among Jaws fans as “the Indianapolis scene”. The scene is among the very finest Spielberg ever directed and a perfect example of the movie’s adherence to simplicity. There are no shark attacks, no blood, no severed body parts. Just a sterling actor who died sadly before he was given his due capturing the attention of the thrill-seeking with the power of a haunting tale of how cruel the ocean Quint calls home can truly be. The speech has been credited to several sources including co-screenwriter Gottlieb, actor Shaw, and uncredited contributors John Milius and Howard Sackler, but I prefer to think the iconic scene was a collaborative effort and the consensus surrounding the production of Jaws seems to validate that assertion.

The supporting cast is full of winners as well. The performance by Lorraine Gary, an actress known mostly for her television work at the time she was hired for Jaws, is a refreshing change of pace from the glamour queens of today trying (and failing) desperately to play working class homemakers. Gary makes Ellen Brody a warm and believable person whose love and concern for the well being of her husband and children feels authentic. Then there’s Murray Hamilton as Amity’s mayor Larry Vaughn. The years have been great to Hamilton’s performance as the skeptical politico because events of the time Jaws was released as well as current events have framed the character’s actions in a new light. At first you want to hate the character of Vaughn because he scoffed at the idea of a killer shark attacking swimmers in his community and refused to take serious action until it was almost too late. But when you take a step back and consider the dilemma Vaughn was in you begin to understand why he decided on the course of action that ultimately failed. Amity, as it’s stated early in the film, is a town that depends on tourist dollars to survive. If word gets out that there’s a shark making a meal out of anyone who dares to venture into the ocean then those precious dollars will quickly dry up. It doesn’t even matter if the townspeople refuse to go in the water anymore because their town is screwed royally regardless. If you’ve observed the economic downturn that has befallen the U.S. in recent years and toll it has taken on people struggling to make ends meet then you can see that Vaughn’s decisions make sense from a more pragmatic standpoint. After the shark attack on the Fourth of July he tells Brody that he was only acting in the town’s best interest, but he says it with an undertone of fear and regret. It casts the character in an honest and surprisingly sympathetic light, and Hamilton rises to the challenge of making a potentially loathsome individual into someone who is in the end merely a flawed human being.

Every person who worked on Jaws deserves special merit but I will restrict my praise in this review to the film’s most valuable players. Verna Fields elevated the film’s structure and pacing with her precision editing, making the story fly like a rocket even when characters are just sitting around having a conversation. Every inch of the aforementioned Joe Alves’ production design feels lived-in and completely authentic. Bill Butler‘s cinematography brings beauty and menace out of every frame of film. The legendary orchestral score by John Williams has earned its reputation as one of the best motion picture soundtracks of all time. It delights and rumbles with the terror of the unknown and can be the soundtrack of your worse nightmare of being in the ocean. There’s little more I can add to that. The music is iconic and justifiably so and I love it all the same, much like every other aspect of the timeless masterpiece that is Jaws.

Video

Universal’s visual presentation of Jaws is nothing short of a miracle. The film is presented in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35: 1 and has been painstakingly remastered in 1080p high-definition. Without hyperbole I can safely say that this restoration is one of the finest I have ever seen for a classic film. Fellow Jaws fanatics, the movie has truly never looked this good on any home viewing format. The picture contains a moderate amount of grain that keeps the transfer from looking too shiny. It’s perfect. The beach and ocean scenes are warm yet menacing and the night scenes pop with lush moonlight and inky black shadows. The greatest beneficiaries of this new transfer are the actors themselves; every crevice and worried wrinkle of their expressive faces are ideally preserved, bringing out tremendous detail in the scenery as well.

Jaws

Audio

The Jaws Blu-ray comes with a newly-created English DTS-HD Master Audio 7.1 track as well as English DTS Digital Surround 2.0 mono and Spanish and French DTS Digital Surround 5.1 audio tracks. If English be your native tongue the recommended option is the 7.1 DTS-MA track. It provides the perfect balance of music, dialogue, and sound and foley effects. The volume of Williams’ score is kept at the right level so it never interferes with the dialogue. In addition the extra features are all presented in English Dolby Digital 2.0 that serves the supplements well without giving your home theater speakers a kick. English, Spanish, and French subtitles are also provided.

Special Features

Not even for the long-awaited Blu-ray release of his best film will Spielberg break his “No Commentary” omerta but fortunately there are more than four hours of bonus features on this release and the prolific director is all over them. Most of these supplements have been made available on prior DVD releases but there are a few exclusive to this Blu-ray. Let’s gut this sucker open and see what spills out all over the dock.

One of the main selling points of this Blu-ray besides the magnificent restoration is the inclusion of The Shark Is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of Jaws, a 101-minute fan-made documentary that has been in production for so long that I can remember being friends with it on MySpace (seriously, that’s how long). The doc has screened at festivals over the years before Universal snapped it up to include on the Jaws Blu, a very wise decision on the part of the studios and filmmakers. What makes The Shark Is Still Working unique to this set is that it doesn’t just cover the making of Jaws but also the impression the film has made on popular culture in the nearly four decades since it was released. Spielberg, Scheider (who also narrated the documentary), Dreyfuss, Benchley, Gary, Williams, and other key members of the cast and crew are interviewed as well as some of Jaws‘ most famous fans – filmmakers Bryan Singer, Eli Roth, Kevin Smith, Robert Rodriguez, and M. Night Shyamalan chief among them.

A huge portion of the doc is devoted to the Jaws Fest event devoted to keeping the film’s memory alive that is held on Martha’s Vineyard every year. There is very little overlap in the stories and behind-the-scenes info divulged between The Shark Is Still Working and other documentaries and featurettes on this Blu-ray and it’s exceedingly evident that this doc was willed into existence through love, patience, imagination, and passion – much like Jaws itself. All in all a wonderful tribute to a classic of American cinema by the people whose lives it has forever impacted.

The only other Blu-ray exclusive is “Jaws: The Restoration”, an 8-minute featurette that presents us with a detailed look at the work that went into restoring Jaws‘ picture and sound to its highest quality in decades, from removing the scratches on each frame of film to remastering the soundtrack in digital audio. The feature is book-ended by a lot of unnecessary back patting on Universal’s part but the quality of the transfer is without equal and deserves merit. Film buffs will find this short very enlightening.

The remaining supplements have been seen before on various releases of Jaws since its Signature Collection laserdisc release in 1995, the most essential being the 123-minute documentary The Making of Jaws. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau, a longtime producer of bonus features for home video releases of Spielberg’s films among others (and one of the interview subjects in The Shark Is Still Working), this documentary was first seen on the 1995 laserdisc and when Jaws first premiered on DVD in 2000 it was cut down to 50 minutes to save disc space. The documentary was restored to its original length for the 2005 30th anniversary DVD release.

At times The Making of Jaws can’t help but show its age but next to Carl Gottlieb’s amazing backstage tome The Jaws Log (filmmaker Steven Soderbergh’s favorite book about movies, supposedly) Bouzereau’s documentary is the single most exhaustive chronicle of Jaws‘ near-disastrous production you will ever find. Just about every vital surviving member of the cast and crew shows up to discuss in great detail the film’s origins, production, and ultimate reception and legacy. Some of the interview segments tend to run longer than they should and would surely benefit from a little additional editing but that’s really the only flaw I can find with this doc. The sheer amount of information and candid behind-the-scenes anecdotes presented here makes The Making of Jaws one of the finest supplemental features ever produced for any film.

Thirteen minutes of deleted scenes and outtakes, several of which were edited into the film for television broadcasts, are included here. Among the more priceless moments are Quint’s original introduction scene (he mercilessly and loudly mocks a kid attempting to play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” on the flute in a music shop), some extended moments at home with the Brodys, and additional footage of the hunters and fishermen attempting to kill the shark for Mrs. Kintner’s reward. Sadly we still don’t get the original version of the scene where Brody and Hooper discover the chewed-up remains of Ben Gardner’s boat – it was filmed during the daylight and you can see stills from the scene in The Jaws Log – and the “outtakes” are little more than multiple takes of the chief firing his pistol at the shark and Quint coughing up blood, but any deleted footage from Jaws is always welcome and there’s plenty of interesting moments to be found here.

“From the Set” (9 minutes) is a fascinating vintage short originally filmed for British television in 1974 while the film was still in production. There is a little behind-the-scenes footage but the piece mostly consists of an interview with a very young Spielberg as he discusses his fledgling career in Hollywood, how he came to be the director of Jaws, and his hopes for the film. This segment is worth a watch if you want to see a youthful Steven Spielberg sound off candidly while trying to remain optimistic and enjoying his lunch.

There are four extensive still galleries under the heading “Jaws Archives”: Storyboard, Production Photos, Marketing Jaws, and Jaws Phenomenon. The former two galleries are self-explanatory but the latter two feature a wide array of domestic and foreign movie posters, ads, lobby cards, merchandising materials, and Oscar campaign trade ads. The hardcore Jaws devoted will have a veritable field day going through these galleries.

The original theatrical trailer (3 minutes) rounds out the Blu-ray bonus features. The disc also comes with a bonus DVD and digital copy. The only extra on the DVD copy is the cut-down version of The Making of Jaws that first appeared on the 2000 25th Anniversary DVD.

Last Words

When 2012 comes to a close there is no doubt in my mind that Universal’s Blu-ray release of Jaws will be seen as one of the best films we’ve seen upgraded for the format this year. The studio has done an superlative job restoring the film and packing it with some terrific bonus features, but it’s the film itself that is the greatest feature on the disc. This is the best version of Jaws I’ve seen to date and fans of the film should do well to snag this Blu-ray. I honestly can not recommend it enough. Now if you’ll excuse, but I think I’m going to check my bathtub for sharks. Hey, you never know.

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