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40 years later, ‘Jaws’ is still teaching us important life lessons

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That dumb little movie with the fake-looking mechanical shark taught us everything we needed to learn about life.
Smith Galtney

Jaws was released 40 years ago this month. Since then, it’s become an institution, “the movie that made us afraid to go swimming” and “the first summer blockbuster that changed Hollywood forever.” But forget water and box-office grosses, or that it put Steven Spielberg on the map. That dumb little movie with the fake-looking mechanical shark taught us everything we needed to learn about life. Let me count the ways …

It’s okay to be a wimp. In his recent essay “Jaws: A Triumph of Cowardice,” critic Tom Shone notes that the original summer blockbuster—the one that ushered in all those mighty, invincible superheroes—was “an exercise in dramatic downsizing, attuned to the lily-livered last-ditch heroism of ordinary men.” Brody, the police chief, is scared of water. Hooper, the ichthyologist, is a rich boy with soft hands. Both are mocked by Quint, a real man who kills sharks and crushes beer cans. But Quint’s macho shtick turns him into fish food, while Brody and Hooper paddle off into the sunset. The message? Being a wuss will save your life, kids.

Embrace your failures. One of the most troubled productions in Hollywood history, Jaws was supposed to feature more of its titular, man-eating villain than what made it onscreen. But thanks to a malfunctioning shark that delayed shooting for weeks, if not months, Spielberg had no choice but to work more closely with his actors. The result? A character-driven thriller that lingers long after its scares wear off.

Less is more. Everything about Jaws is a lesson in restraint. The shark is more terrifying because we barely ever see it. The killing of young Alex Kintner is more harrowing since it’s witnessed from afar. And the music triggers waves of menace with only two notes. When John Williams first played the famous theme to Spielberg, he laughed: “I thought he was putting me on. I was expecting to hear something weird and melodic, kind of tonal but eerie. But he played it for me again. And then he played it again. And then it suddenly seemed right.”

Life isn’t fair. It’s a harsh world. People die. And usually they don’t deserve it. Unlike, say, Jurassic Park, where Spielberg marked characters as jerks before offing them, Jaws’ body count is merciless: a feisty young chick who likes to stay three steps ahead of the boys; a boy who just wants to play in the ocean and break free from his overbearing mother (maybe not in that order); a WWII veteran who survived the sinking of the Indianapolis. In a just world, the shark would’ve bitten that annoying Mrs. Taft in half. But Jaws was dealing in cold, hard truth—not fairy-tale ideals.

Grow old gracefully. Unlike the Star Wars or E.T. re-releases, Jaws will return to theaters on June 21 without having undergone major reconstructive surgery. The shark hasn’t been digitally juiced up. No scenes have been added. The ending hasn’t been changed. The original negative has simply been immaculately restored, so Jaws looks better now than it ever did during its original run. In fact, it’s my favorite Blu-ray. Ever. So there.

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