Revisiting Jaws on IMAX: It’s still got the bite

Though I’m too familiar with the jumpscares, they still made me jump. Blame it on John Williams

Jaws official poster

Jaws is the quintessential monster movie.  As we all know, the monster in the film is a 25-ft Great White shark, an eating machine that does nothing but swim, make baby sharks, and eat. And once upon a time, the shark in Jaws discovered a picturesque island in New England and turned its beaches into its own personal buffet.

The movie was a monster hit—it was the highest grossing movie of 1975 and the first Hollywood movie to gross $200 million. It was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and made the career of then 27-year-old Steven Spielberg.

You’ll never guess how I got introduced to Jaws. It was in my mom’s beauty salon, which was located on that very short street named Anza in Makati. I was around 10 then. Since my mom owned the place, relatives were entitled to a free haircut, so I was there every month. (We had too many relatives, and the salon inevitably drowned in red ink and closed.)

I came for my monthly haircut one Saturday afternoon. The place that day was crowded with diva customers. Being a non-revenue customer, I had to wait.  I reluctantly leafed through a copy of MOD magazine, while fully aware that 10-year-old boys weren’t part of that publication’s demographics. It turned out that MOD was serializing Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws. The first chapter was in that issue and it looked intriguing. It described how the shark had chanced upon its first victim, a young woman who had gone skinny dipping. I was hooked.

Yes, the novel isn’t for 10-year-olds.  Benchley describes the shark attacks in such gory detail. There is a subplot on the sheriff’s wife who has an affair with the young oceanologist. I now looked forward to having haircuts in the salon. Each haircut turned into reading the next chapter of Jaws. At the rate I was going, I was close to becoming a skinhead.

The movie that was eventually made was vastly different from the book—and that was for the better. Spielberg and his writers did away with the adult themes and focused on the shark problem. The fictional town called Amity is “a summer town” that “needs summer dollars.” The last thing it needs is a Great White devouring summer dollar-splurging tourists. The plot is Ibsen-esque. As the shark has already killed two swimmers, the sheriff (played by Roy Scheider) wants to close the beaches as a precaution. In the eyes of the townsfolk, the sheriff is the villain, because shutting the beaches means ruining their livelihoods.

I love the way Spielberg captured the small-town way of life in the first half of Jaws.  Filming was done in the municipality of Edgartown in Martha’s Vineyard. The director cast many of the townsfolk in small roles. It’s a nice touch because it creates a quaint atmosphere and gives the movie so much authenticity.

Meanwhile, the shark is letting its presence be known by attacking shark hunters and fishermen. Spielberg follows the Alfred Hitchcock style of creating fear by not actually showing the shark just yet.  Emulating the master’s method wasn’t intentional. It was just that the mechanical shark built by the special effects team kept breaking down. But it worked well for the movie, because the unseen is more frightening.

If the first half of Jaws is pure Henrik Ibsen, the second half is Herman Melville. It’s when the sheriff embarks on a boat trip to hunt down the shark. With him is the macho shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) and the youthful shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss). These three men, as brilliantly written by screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, weren’t meant to share the space, much less a small boat named Orca bobbing about in the middle of the ocean.  Their contrasting personalities make for funny confrontations and tense camaraderie. And there’s the shark to contend with, which is much deadlier than they anticipated.

Spielberg has done other great movies, but none of his later works have achieved the level of perfection of ‘Jaws’

Jaws is perfect in every way. The roles are superbly written and well-cast.  I love the great build-up to the climactic end. Spielberg knew how to keep us on the edge of our seats. This was only his second feature film, and one can already notice some of his trademarks. What I like about it is the unmistakably ‘70s grit it has. It’s gripping and spared from being ruined by CGI. It’s authentic and raw.

Spielberg has done other great movies but to my mind, none of his later works have achieved the level of perfection of Jaws. It all has to do with atmosphere and its ‘70s sensibility. Spielberg’s recent films are too technically flawless and overly reliant on CGI. It’s like every scene is obviously calculated. They’re smooth and effortlessly made. Sometimes having a few wrinkles and some clutter can be of great help in the storytelling.

I own a DVD copy of ‘Jaws,’ and I put it on about twice a year

I own a DVD copy of Jaws, and I put it on about twice a year. Having seen it countless times, one learns that the perfect movie does have a few imperfections. The timeline of the story is all bungled up and there are a few editing mistakes. The great panic that happens on the beach on the Fourth of July is also flawed. Why were the bathers still running on the beach when they were already out of the water and safe on dry land? Were they rushing to their cars for a clean getaway?

The news of Jaws being reissued on IMAX theaters was nirvana for me.  This one was to die for, so I trudged to SM North EDSA. The IMAX Theater there is smaller than the one at Mall of Asia, but it still has an expansive screen. The courteous staff reminded me that the format they have is in 2D and not 3D. It was fine with me, Jaws doesn’t need 3D effects. We were just around 20 people in the cinema on a Friday night.  I had a row to myself and so there were no worries over COVID-19.

On that huge screen, Jaws is as powerful as ever. Just hearing the cellos slowly play the two notes of John Williams’ iconic score during the opening credits was enough to boost the adrenaline. Though I’m too familiar with the jumpscares by now, they still made me jump. Blame it on digital recording and on John Williams. Watch Jaws on IMAX and you get that feeling of watching a live orchestra perform the score. Spielberg himself has noted that 50 percent of what made Jaws the classic it is can be attributed to the music. Williams deservedly won the Oscar for his work here. He had been nominated the previous year for his great score of The Towering Inferno. But it was Jaws that established him as the go-to composer for blockbuster movies.

 The large screen also offers several details in the film that I missed when I’d see the movie at home. They’re like Easter eggs that offer hints of certain events that may happen, or a trait of a certain character.

Since I had a row to myself, I freely recited some of the iconic lines along with the actors. (“You’re going to need a bigger boat.”) Yet nothing prepared me for the movie’s spectacular climax. I’ve seen it a hundred times but witnessing it on IMAX, it took my breath away. It was incredible and thoroughly satisfying.  The P670 ticket was worth it, mark my word. IMAX was invented for movies like Jaws.

Credit: Rotten Tomatoes Classic Trailers/YouTube

About author


He is a freelance writer of lifestyle and entertainment, after having worked in Philippine broadsheets and magazines.

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