Jaws at 45: The Scenes, the Sounds, the Shark

The unforgettable poster for Jaws, designed by artist Roger Kastel.
The unforgettable poster for Jaws, designed by artist Roger Kastel.
Image: All Images (Universal Pictures)

Going in the water hasn’t been comfortable for 45 years. That’s how long it’s been since director Steven Spielberg first released his film Jaws and subsequently changed everything. The summer blockbuster season was born. A new wunderkind director emerged. A little-known composer instantly became a legend. And audiences everywhere have been afraid to go back in the water ever since.

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To celebrate the 45th anniversary of this iconic film, Chery Eddy and myself, the two biggest Jaws fans at io9, decided to rewatch the movie and have a discussion about it. Our oldest memories, new discoveries, what it means, what it represents, and so much more. Check out our conversation below.


Not three barrels!
Not three barrels!
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Germain Lussier: Okay: Let’s talk Jaws. When I say “Jaws,” what’s the first thing you think of?

Cheryl Eddy: The first moment in the movie that comes to mind is the famous zooming-in-and-out-at-the-same-time shot of Chief Brody sitting on the beach, realizing to his horror that the nightmare is true, and there’s a shark out there snacking on the beachgoers. It’s like a gasp, in a camera move, and it perfectly captures the “OH SHIT” of that moment so well. Also “Spanish Ladies,” which is now stuck in my head.

Lussier: Good choices! Yeah. That shot probably became one of the, if not the most, recognizable shots in the movie. And yes, now we encourage everyone reading to put “Spanish Ladies” on as the soundtrack for this article.

Speaking of soundtracks though, when I think Jaws, I think John Williams. Period. The simple, chilling music he created hasn’t just become an unforgettable part of worldwide culture, it still, to this day, gives me chills when I’m watching the movie. Plus, you don’t even realize, but his more “adventure” themes that play during the second half of the movie are right up there with his Indy and Star Wars stuff. It’s one of many, many examples of his music completely making and elevating a film. And Steven Spielberg would be the first person to agree.

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Eddy: Definitely. That shark had theme music! He had like, walk-on music!

Lussier: Totally. Plus it’s almost more than that. It’s him for most of the movie. Obviously most people know the stories of why Spielberg had to hide the shark for most of the movie and how that worked to his advantage. But take that mystery, add Williams’ music, and it’s more or less a character in the film.

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Do you remember the first time you saw the movie?

Eddy: I can’t specifically remember the first time. But I do remember the first time I learned about Jaws as a thing—when I was around six years old, my family went on a vacation to LA. I can’t really remember anything about that trip other than I was afraid of Space Mountain (at Disneyland) and then Jaws jumping out of the water on the Universal Studios tour! So epic. I was probably too young to see the movie at the time but it made a huge impression on me. I was definitely Team Shark after that. What about you?

The three amigos.
The three amigos.
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Lussier: No, I don’t remember either. I feel like it’s always been a part of me like most movies from that late ‘70s, early ‘80s era. What I do remember is that my mom used to tell me about the first time she saw the movie. That she went to see it with a friend, had no idea what it was, was scared out of her freaking mind, and then didn’t go in an ocean for several years.

And watching it again this week, even though I knew, for example, when the body pops out of the boat and specifically warned my wife “scary part coming” she still jumped and spilled coffee on herself. So the movie still works.

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Eddy: Definitely! The frights still hold up, along with the gross stuff. The crabs creeping all over the body on the beach at the beginning, then when Richard Dreyfuss’ character is ripping into the (not-Jaws) shark to see what’s in there. Brutal especially for a pre-PG-13 movie.

Lussier: Oh god, yes. The pseudo-dissection is gross, with that white material that pours out. Part of that is all Dreyfuss though. His reactions are amazing. And he also makes the scene where he’s performing the autopsy on the first victim. You don’t see what he’s seeing, it’s all off-screen, but his reactions of terror and disgust are almost scarier than anything you do see. Spielberg uses that technique a lot here. Your imagination is always scarier than reality.

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Eddy: It’s hard to pick a favorite actor or character...Dreyfuss is so good, Roy Scheider is obviously amazing, the supporting characters (the terrible mayor, the grieving mom, Chief Brody’s wife, and kids, the random locals) are perfectly cast, but it doesn’t get much better than Robert Shaw as Quint. Just iconic.

(Obviously the shark is the BEST character. I mean among the human characters of course, haha.)

Bruuuuuce!
Bruuuuuce!
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Lussier: Yeah, I’m with you. The fact that he dies makes him kind of the standout. Plus also, he’s so mysterious. We learn about his past a little but for the most part, he kind of comes in out of nowhere. This gruff guy who apparently hunts sharks. He’s got all these literal jaws hanging around his place. He’s instantly captivating.

I also never noticed until watching it again recently that he has like a little assistant who follows him around on the land. A dude in a little plaid shirt. They should have made a spin-off.

Eddy: Yes! I noticed that too! The movie has so many details. You can really watch it dozens of times and notice new things every time.

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Lussier: Well let’s jump off that to the main point of our little chat. This week marks the 45th anniversary of the film. Which is just...wild. So, 45 years after its release, what stands out to you about the movie? Was there anything else you noticed about it in 2020? I know I have some thoughts.

Eddy: It holds up. The characters are so well-crafted, and you really, really don’t miss the things we take for granted in movies today, especially fancy special effects. As many times as I’ve seen the movie, I always forget how it’s pretty perfectly divided into two parts: the build-up, where the main conflict is Brody trying to get the mayor to close the damn beaches; and then the part aboard the Orca, where it becomes more of a survival story. Survive the voyage on that rickety boat, survive Quint’s obsession run wild, survive the shark once it starts attacking them in earnest.

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Lussier: And the little touches too. The way the movie keeps showing you the canisters Brody is going to shoot at the end to remind you they’re there. The way the yellow barrels develop a personality of their own. Also, the way the chemistry between the three leads slowly builds across the movie. I really enjoyed all of that.

Eddy: The scene below deck where they’re comparing their wounds, and then Quint goes into “the speech”—still chilling every time.

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Lussier: Every. Time.

Bigger boat needed.
Bigger boat needed.
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Eddy: It’s pretty wild to think this was Spielberg’s second feature!

Lussier: And he wasn’t even 30 when he made it. The skill and talent are undeniable. Truly remarkable.

What struck me watching Jaws today though, especially in the midst of a global pandemic and continued protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd, is how simultaneously timely and dated the film is. For example, the Mayor is very Trumpian in his assessment that he’s gonna open the beaches despite every warning against the fact. He knows it’s the wrong thing but he needs to get that economy going. It’s so familiar it’s scary. And then Chief Brody literally has the line “I can do anything. I’m the chief of police.” Which, in the movie, is meant to be a joke but doesn’t feel like a joke today? But it was just eye-opening to recontextualize this movie with a 2020 viewpoint. It’s a movie that shows us just how far we’ve come, but also how little we’ve evolved.

But of course, you still get wrapped up in the fear, the excitement, and the adventure. It’s a testament to the film that you can still look at it almost half a century later and find things about it to discuss. Or maybe it’s a testament to society that we’re still stuck in some of these same ruts.

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Eddy: Hollywood has evolved in some ways since 1975, though it still has a long way to go. Much like the larger world.

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Sharks are still scary though!

Lussier: I think that’s, largely, because of this movie too.

Eddy: Yes, definitely. The shark reputation will never recover from Jaws (and all the rip-off movies that came after it).

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Nearing the end.
Nearing the end.

Lussier: Wrapping things up, Jaws is 45 years old. Do you think people will still be talking about it in another 45 years? What are your final thoughts?

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Eddy: It’s a classic that will endure, even though Spielberg has directed a zillion other huge movies, it’ll always be among his top accomplishments.

“Here’s to swimmin with bow-legged women!”

Lussier: *drinks shot* Agreed. In the 45 years since its release, Spielberg has only gotten better and better and his reputation, along with about a million other notable things about it, means people will be revisiting Jaws for as long as people are watching movies.

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Entertainment Reporter for io9/Gizmodo

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DISCUSSION

noreallybutwait
NoReallyButWait

This movie really does hold up so well and a lot of it comes down to the fact that it’s a very human movie. Yes, it’s about a giant shark, but it’s not ABOUT the giant shark, not really. It’s about the characters, who are fleshed out so well and acted incredibly by the cast. The slow burn build up, everything about the movie bolsters the fact that even though it’s about a giant shark, you never forget about the humans in harms way.

Too many movies these days forget that. Even Jurassic Park, it was way more about dinosaurs than it was about the humans being eaten. Still a great movie, but lacks the humanity of JAWS.

Little touches really drive the point home. You hate the mayor, but I still get affected by him saying “MY kids were on that beach too!” Young Michael’s shock when he sees the man being eaten in front of him, which mirrors OUR shock at finally seeing the shark for the first time. The grieving widow...the scene where she slaps Chief Brody is one of my favorite in the film, and it’s so far removed from any of the shark action.

There’s so much about this movie that transcends what it really should be - a dumb movie about a shark eating people. But it ends up being so much more.