Netflixing: Jaws

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This movie will only be on Netflix for a few more hours.

In fact, only the people reading this on will still have a chance to see it. Those who read the blog on my own website are already too late.

I kept Jaws in my queue for a while, and when I heard that it was leaving Netflix in March, I decided to make it a priority.

And then I found out it is actually leaving on March 1st.

So, if you are reading this, and it is still February, then you may want to put off reading the rest of this review until after you see the movie.

You all set, then? In that case, this is Jaws.

The Pre-Temple-of-Doom PG Rating

In previous reviews, I have mentioned that, though I usually avoid R-rated movies, I make some exceptions for certain movies released before the PG-13 rating was invented. Some of the older Rs are actually closer to a modern PG-13 rating.

However, the reverse is also true.

A number of PG-rated movies, from the time before the “13” rating was invented, are actually closer to a modern R rating. Some of the older PG titles are quite liberal with blood, nudity, and graphic content.

And Jaws is one of these films. They could not make this movie today and get anything less than an R from the MPAA.

The primary offense is copious amounts of red blood (though it boggles my mind why the MPAA singles out a single color of blood), and also some silhouetted lady bits. If your child, pet, or homunculus that you made using forbidden alchemy is unsuited for such material, kindly keep them locked in whatever drawer that usually holds them while you watch this film.

This Movie is a Classic

Jaws is sometimes referred to as a horror film. But I find that position hard to justify. The story deals with a deadly threat, yes, but that threat is never marketed as unnatural or unstoppable. Most horror stories center around threats that are more or less all-powerful, at least in comparison to the protagonist(s).

The characters in Jaws needed a bigger boat, yes, but that’s all they needed. If they hadn’t been outgunned, they wouldn’t have been in danger.

Because, at the end of the day, Jaws is just about a shark.

And a shark is just a wild animal—mortal and non-special.

Which is good news for Jaws, as part of the film’s appeal is how down to Earth the story is. Pitting these realistically portrayed people against a realistic threat gives the story a solidness that makes it relatable.

It was Steven Spielberg’s breakout directorial role. It is often thought of as the first movie blockbuster, and for a time was the highest grossing movie ever.

It’s been somewhat neglected in the intervening decades. A number of poorly made sequels did not help its long-term reputation. Still, the original movie is top notch.

A Tale of Two Stories

Despite what I said above, I must, unfortunately, give the following assessment:

Jaws is not a great movie.

It is actually two great movies.

And, as the runtime of the film is roughly two hours, it is easy enough to speak of these two movies as “The First Hour” and “The Second Hour.”

The First Hour: Human Beings are Idiots

It was the 1970s, and everybody smoked.

Every master bedroom had an ashtray on the nightstand. People smoked in hospitals and the town hall. They smoked while jogging. They smoked while fishing and sailing and enjoying the beach on the pleasant island of Amity.

What I’m saying is that all the people who were killed by the shark in this movie would have died of lung cancer anyway, which ties into the theme of Jaws‘s first half: that people are freakin’ idiots.

To begin with, you got Amity’s mayor, who is so profit-obsessed that he keeps the beaches open even after repeated shark-related deaths, and even tries to cover up the incidents.

Then you have the mayor’s sycophants: the owner of a local newspaper who intentionally buries the lede that might save lives, and the local doctor who is all too happy to think up alternative explanations for the grisly deaths.

Then you have the privileged yuppies that inhabit the island, including a number of amateur recreational sailors who fancy themselves as expert fisherman up to the challenge of hunting a killer shark.

And our protagonist, the local police chief, is ill equipped to deal with these hazards to human health. He finds his attempts to protect the people of Amity stymied at every possible step by…the people of Amity.

Boy, it sure is hard not to root for the shark.

The Second Hour: Human Beings are Amazing

The second half of Jaws resets the story. The rank and file citizens of Amity are never present here. There are no politics or society to wrestle against. It’s just three men, a boat, and a shark.

This part of the movie is strictly a “Man vs. Nature” affair, and is mostly a reflection on the various life experiences of these three men: a Word War II vet, an unshaven scientist from a rich family, and a big-city cop living as a fish out of water, punctuated by occasional brushes with the killer shark who is the only unchanged element from the first act.

These men have few weapons against a great white beast of exceptional size, but their real struggle comes from trying to identify and understand one another.

But through a mix of science and grit, they can stand up to one of nature’s greatest “Eating Machines”. That they are able to fight with such few tools is testament to how magnificent human beings can be. It makes the perfect bookend against the more pessimistic first half.

My Judgment

Jaws is a well written, well directed, and well paced examination of human frailty and triumph. It benefits from a solid grounding in character drama that makes the shark-based violence that much easier to swallow. It could have fallen apart in a hundred different ways.

But it stayed the course and remained cohesive.

I judge that it is worthy of the accolades it has received. It will be on Netflix for a few more hours, but I can’t promise that you will get another chance. Act now, if I’ve managed to convince you.

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