Amity Island, nighttime, 1975. Chrissy Watkins leaves a beach party after having a few drinks with a handsome-looking fella who is way drunker than she is and joins her on the promise of some late-night skinny dipping. Only he passes out on the beach as Chrissy dives in, and as she swims into deeper water, unbeknownst to her, something menacing lurks below. It homes in on her silhouette and suddenly, she is pulled under with a violent tug. She surfaces, injured and hyperventilating until she is rammed again by her assailant, pushed through the water to a buoy, which she clings to for dear life. She screams to somebody, anybody to help her, but there is no one. Suddenly, she is pulled under, and the night is silent once again. Chrissy Watkins is gone, claimed by a monstrous great white shark that has made Amity its new summer hunting ground. Don’t make plans for August.
So begins Jaws, one of the greatest movies ever made. The story takes place on sleepy little Amity Island, a pastiche of Martha’s Vineyard, the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore, and any other northeastern summertime beach getaway you can think of. Police Chief Martin Brody, a transplant from New York City, enjoys his quiet life policing a mostly crime-free town. But when Chrissy Watkins’ body washes up, he realizes he has a serious problem on his hands. The mayor stymies Brody’s efforts to close the beaches, fearing a loss of tourism dollars. But the attacks continue, culminating in a bloody fiasco during the 4th of July weekend that turns Amity’s beaches into an extended chum line. With the help of nerdy marine biologist Matt Hooper and grizzled shark-hunter Quint, Brody goes off to sea in search of the giant man-eater plaguing the island. They find it soon enough, and realize that the shark is far bigger, meaner and smarter than they bargained for. And as Hooper and Quint grapple with how to capture or kill this thing, Brody offers a piece of iconic advice that goes tragically unheeded: They’re gonna need a bigger boat.
If all story conflicts can be classified into one of three categories—man vs. man, man vs. self, and man vs. nature—then Jaws surely stands as one of the greatest examples of that last category ever put to the big screen. Released in 1975, and directed by Steven Spielberg, Jaws defined the modern summer blockbuster, and it was such a nationwide sensation that it pretty much made any ocean-going American deathly afraid of shark attacks for at least the next 10 years. Kids everywhere (myself included) were forbidden by their parents from seeing the film for fear that it would ruin their desire to ever hit the beach again. And they were right, too.
Jaws isn’t just a hugely entertaining film, it is a movie about the elemental terror that comes from knowing you are at the bottom of somebody else’s food chain, and trapped in a hostile environment guarded by a monster that cannot be conventionally defeated. Add to that some of the most effective suspense techniques ever employed (the titular shark is rarely seen, its presence mostly announced by an exceptionally menacing movie score written by the legendary John Williams), and you have a movie that works just as well today as it did when it was first released. Thankfully, there were never any sequels made for this one. None. Not one. Ever. Not even in 3D or anything like that, thank goodness. Because that…that would have been terrible.
There is more than one moment of truth in this movie, and the one that resonates most with viewers might depend on how much they inherently fear the water and whatever swims within it. Perhaps the strongest contender comes from an unforgettable monologue given by the shark-hunter Quint, as he, Brody and Hooper bond one evening after a hard and fruitless day of chasing the beast. Over drinks, Quint finally lets down his guard and tells these two soft-handed land-lubbers a tale he shares only with those who have earned the right to hear it: the real reason why he doesn’t just fish for sharks, but hunts in an act of protected, species-wide revenge. It is an absolutely riveting scene in which we learn a whole lot more about Quint than why he refuses to wear a life jacket when on the water. It turns out, there is much more to fear than being eaten by a shark. Sometimes, not being eaten by one can be far, far worse.
I live on the Jersey Shore, between the Matawan inlet and Spring Lake, two of the locations where the 1916 Jersey Shore shark attacks happened – a week-long bloodbath of shark-on-human predation that partly inspired this movie. I summer on Cape Cod, where the deep surf and presence of seals brings plenty of great whites literally within throwing distance of the dry sand. Chatham, MA is currently the great white capital of the northeast—its beaches are permanently closed, but people still go into the water anyway, heedless of the risk. I think of that when I think of this movie. And I also recall how Peter Benchley—author of the novel, and screenplay co-writer—felt guilty for the damage his superb story ultimately did to the species, which subsequently suffered far more at the hands of panicky humans than we ever did from being confused for a seal. He wrote at length about the species, and how it is not a monster, but just another animal, and a strangely fragile one, at that. And while his efforts are laudable and accurate, they still underscore the horror of Jaws. There really are monsters out there. And the scariest thing about them is that they do not come for us. We, in our arrogance and in our ignorance, offer ourselves up to them. We are a prey species. We just don’t know it yet.