Blu-ray Review: JAWS Finally Lands Ashore on Blu

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic

I was less than ten years of age. My dad had scored a VHS copy of Jaws, and I was psyching myself up to watch it. I was a kid who had nightmares all the time, so avoided any film I thought would be super scary. There was something about a film concerning a killer shark that drew me in.

For days, I'd mutter a morbid mantra to myself, thinking over and over, "I'm going to be scared, I'm going to be scared."

Naturally, this negativity exacted self-inflicted injustice to a young, fragile mind: the film scared the crap out of me.

My family cottage is on the Atlantic Ocean, hundreds of miles up the same coast where the film takes place. The shores of New Brunswick, and the sleepy summer town of Shediac, don't look so different than Martha's Vineyard, the Island that stood in for the fictional setting of Amity. I'd grown up swimming in salt water, spent my earliest days on white sand beaches with strange, often large women in bathing caps going for a delicate dip into the saline water.

I saw myself, then, as the kid on the yellow raft, going out for one more dip. I could feel the leviathan ripping me and my floating bed apart, blood spraying up into the air. I shared a similar age with Brody's eldest, doing a Boy Scout swim in the estuary as a giant fin glides mercilessly towards the hapless, helpless kids.

For weeks afterwards, any water would bring pangs of terror and anxiety. I'd be in the shower, and have keen memories of dread, thinking somehow some shark would come and bite me when I was most vulnerable. As screenwriter Carl Gottlieb said, "We wanted to do for the ocean what the stabbing scene did for showers in Psycho". For me, at least, Jaws managed to ruin showers as well.

Naturally, the anxiety about this film soon passed, helped, in part, by convincing my younger sister, who also saw much of the film, to be fearful of the ocean. As always, taking your own fears and putting them on someone smaller than you is an integral part of growing up, one reason, I believe, that many choose to have children for themselves.

Jaws ended up becoming a kind of touchstone film for me. I developed a serious interest in all things aquatic. I'd eventually name a company after a shark, and I've been an avid scuba diver for more than 15 years. I've swam with sharks, and adored every second of it. Something that caused me such distress would in time become one of my most beloved films, a turn of events I'll be forever grateful for.

Like many of the greatest films of the 70s, Jaws was an accidental masterpiece. It was the product of a fearless and neurotic young director, only 26 at the time, willing to take to the open seas with untested technology and create something that's likely to be cherished for as long as people watch films. Stripping the novel from its more salacious and sidetracked elements (including an affair between Brody's wife and the Marine Biologist), the archetypical structure is laid bare, until we're left with a final act that pits men against irrational beast. This is the stuff of Hemingway, of Melville, of the Bible. This is Campbellian fodder in the form of a rubber and metal menace.

Yet Jaws gives us much more than this simplified trajectory usually manifests. Like Lucas' Star Wars a few years later, the film works at its core because of its explicit allusions to collective myths, but it's the additional trappings, the gentle interplay of character, the fine visual moments and sublime cinema craft that elevates the work even farther.

Spielberg goes on record, repeatedly, saying the fact that the shark didn't work made for a better picture. The fact that we go a good hour into the work before we see the beastie rise from the surface was more a testament to the technical challenges rather than a cleverness of script. Still, with the help of esteemed cutter Verna Fields, Jaws proved that seeing less often produced something of far greater impact that presenting each and every grisly moment in full bore.

One of my favourite scenes, among many, is when the two idiots take the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre hook" (Spielberg's words), stick it into a roast of beef, and set it afloat from the dock. The shark, naturally, takes the bait, and throws our hapless drunken lout into the water. The dock heads to sea, and then stops.

It then turns, and head back.

That moment, when the surface of the dock becomes the center of your entire psychic focus, dread building as it comes closer...closer... only to have it finally slide to shore, well, that's the stuff of movie magic.

Finally, above it all, above Spielberg's use of the Vertigo dolly/zoom shot to focus in on Brody, above the glorious shock of the head underwater, above all these elements, there's those two awful, amazing notes. A low-E followed by a F, a demonic heartbeat of our underwater nightmare.

Baa-dummm....

Two simple, two perfect notes, a dark octave forming this ostinato that cues us, both subliminally and explicitly, at the danger from beneath the water. John Williams has made many stunning scores, and naturally will be remembered as one of the finest film composers who ever lived. Nothing, however, approaches the delicious simplicity of this main Jaws theme. Spielberg talks about laughing at first at the absurdity of it ("two notes!"). Yet without this oft-imitated cadence, without the semi-sonic rumble of the contrabasses sawing away at their strings, this film wouldn't be half the wonder that it is.

Modern audiences accustomed to CGI creatures and epileptic editing style may not find their blood curdled by the tale. By modern standards, even the gore elements are almost pedestrian by nature. But Jaws was never merely a creature feature, it never strictly trafficked on the shock values of a given element. Instead, it manages to be both epic and intimate, a character piece of great sensitivity coupled with an Odyssian journey that's timeless. Both a silly, eminently quotable action movie and one of the finest films ever made, Jaws bridges like few other films the divide between the summer blockbuster and those more poetic movies deemed capital-F "Films". Enshrined in the pantheon of great cinematic works, the work remains a touchstone of the filmic arts, both terrifically enjoyable on an emotional level, while being sublimely, exhilaratingly fascinating when delved into from an intellectual perspective. In short, Jaws remains, decades later, a near perfect film.


The Disc

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2012 continues to bring forth some of the finest restorations and presentations of classic cinema, with this title being no exception. As part of the 100th anniversary of Universal Pictures, the team behind the rescue of this work from the ravages of time has done a near miraculous take on the piece. Films of this popularity were often over-loved, the negative printed too many times to survive well enough to live up to the scrutiny of digital presentation. Through an extensive process (detailed in a fine, short documentary included on disc) the restoration team managed to make this little shark movie appear as vibrant as the day it was shot.

In many ways, in fact, the film's likely to look better than even the finest answer prints from the mid-70s. This restoration not only correctly times the film (an immensely difficult process, given the changing weather conditions and the fabulous use of tonality that Bill Butler brought to the shoot), but they manage to do so without ever scrubbing the film from its celluloid roots. Spielberg to this day continues to advocate for the look of film on most of his shoots, and it's clear that the attention to detail in this presentation manages to avoid a scrubbed, waxy-faced look that plagues some other restorations of similar period films.

Before the disc's release, I had the chance to see the DCP of the film several times. Projected on a large screen, the small details of the "print" are astonishing, from the weave of the mayor's Anchor-themed jacket to the grain of the wood on the deck of the Orca. While certain shots do have a slight bit of ringing, and the internet is ripe with those bitching about this or that "halo", I can assure that these nits are not worthy of being picked. The thing looks simply amazing.

The same attention to detail has been brought to the audio soundtrack. Remixed (NOT just reprocessed) into 7.1, the original mono Foley elements remain intact, with only subtle shifts in the stereo separation of things like crashing waves and other atmospheric elements opening up the soundscape. This mix is presented with the clarity of a modern presentation, but with sensitivity to the intent of the original (Oscar winning) sound work that made the film such a power house back in the 70s.

The clarity of the recording is quite impressive indeed, coupled with the magnificent low-bass of the score to provide a spine-tingling audio presentation of this classic. Bless them, they also included the original mono track, just in case you wanted to compare the two.

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The Supplements

Longstanding collectors of all things Jaws know that the Laserdisc set that Universal put out in the 90s contained some of the best materials assembled about this film. The highlight of this set was a 2+ hour talking-head documentary assembled by Spielberg stalwart Laurent Bouzereau. Spielberg's quite famous for his admonition about commentary tracks, but he's more than happy to discuss in intimate detail the process of production, just not over the visuals of the film in question.

The 25th anniversary DVD I own contained merely a truncated part of this documentary, so it's with great pleasure that I finally got a chance to have the complete Making of Jaws finally on a smaller shinydisc format.

Thanks to the benefit of time, and the fact that when it was produced participants were far less guarded, you really do get a nuts-and-bolts take on the film's production.

If that weren't enough, you also get the feature length doc, The Shark is Still Working: The Impact and Legacy of Jaws. This is a fascinating piece, assembled not by some studio EPK team, but by fanatic (FINatic?) Jaws nutbars themselves. Eliciting views from many of the key players, as well as some extraordinary auxiliary participants, this is a drilled-down look at even nerdier element of the film and the phenomena surrounding its release.

I was particularly piqued to see the late Percy Rodrigues show up on screen - I had been unaware of the man's name or face (nor that I'd seen him on an episode of Star Trek!), but his eerie, baritone voice on dozens of trailers (including, of course, this one) helped him narrate the film adverts of my youth.

Slightly clumsy in places, there's nonetheless a wonderful earnestness about the doc, and while the main participants do seem to trot out the same old yarns, you get access to a heap more inside information than even the most jaded of fans could expect.

There's a fine doc about Jaws: The Restoration that shows the various techniques and technicians that helped bring the film back to life, along with comments directly from Spielberg about how he ensured a continuity to the original look of the film.

Culled from the laserdisc set are an exhaustive collection of Archive materials, including the original trailer (standard def) and just about every still, lobby card, poster and other ephemera you'd want to see. A very fun little vintage doc, From the Set, shows an exasperated (and impossibly young!) Spielberg trying to wrangle yet another shot while fighting with an uncooperative rubber shark and Atlantic Ocean.

You also get D-Box code on the disc - I find the ass-vibrator technology completely ridiculous, but I admit this is one title that might be fun to "ride" at home while watching for the umpteenth time.


Final Take

At last, at last, we get Jaws on Blu. The film has never looked or sounded better, the supplements are worthy of purchase in and of themselves. Spielberg's masterpiece (well, one of several) has been preserved for future generations in a way that's sensitive to the original production elements. In a year where we're seeing a slew of magnificent releases, Jaws is certainly up there among the very best. Taking a cue from Brody, there will be slews of  people bringing this title home, watching it in wonder, and thinking "damn, we're going to need a bigger TV."

Around the Internet:
  • Quint75

    You all know me...

  • crissrudd4554

    The full documentary is on the 30th anniversary DVD. The shorter documentary was on the 25th anniversary DVD.

  • dartangnonkitty

    My favorite scenes from Jaws revolve around Quint the Fisherman; he remains a hero from the abyss, in my mind. Jaws has affected us all; with the release of the Blu-ray, old stories seem to be popping up like daisies. My childhood friend who works with me at Dish was remembering our swimming lessons of long ago; both of us were terrified that Jaws would come out of the drain at the bottom of our local pool; how funny it is to look back. We are going to be out of town, on vacation in a couple weeks, so I ordered the Blu-ray from Blockbuster @Home; it’s going to be so cool to watch Jaws, right before we head down to the beach. I’m sure the visual experience of HD will be awesome, but going in the water will be epic. Thanks, Jason for your thoughts; I really enjoyed reading your review.

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