08/04/2014 11:19 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Steven Spielberg's 'Jaws': A Reappraisal

GABRIEL BOUYS via Getty Images

June 20th, 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Steven Spielberg's classic thriller Jaws (released June 20, 1975, and based of Peter Benchley's 1974 novel of the same name) -- a picture that many consider to be the first modern summer blockbuster. On Martha's Vineyard, however, where the picture was filmed, the celebration has begun early with cinemas across the island holding showings of Spielberg's film on a weekly basis. For many on the island, Jaws holds an intimate power. Tours of the film's shooting locations leave the small town of Edgartown daily to pepper curious tourists with trivia about the film's notoriously difficult production, and all the ways that it captures the pristine, modest beauty of the island on which it was shot. As such, when I went to see the film at the two-screen Edgartown cinema in mid-July, I found myself greeted by hordes of fans, all ready to relive the terror of a film that captured the American cinematic imagination almost forty years ago. Some of us saw it in theaters, some on television screens. Regardless, it is a testament to Jaws's enduring power as both a cultural touchstone and thriller landmark that a film -- at first expected to bomb -- has endured so wonderfully. Who'd have thought that Bruce -- Spielberg's nickname for the multiple animatronic sharks whose mechanical issues almost sunk the production -- could still make us all so afraid to go in the water.

This power holds especially impressive given the conversation that has dominated much of the cinema landscape over the last few summers. Critics and historians -- especially this year, when July 4th weekend (a usually exuberant display of blockbuster marketing) came around with no notable releases to be seen -- have begun to sing dirges for the modern blockbuster. Whether it's because of the questionable logic of the studio tentpole approach, or simply a result of criticisms over big budget monotony finally taking hold, many can't imagine the model of the summer release season enduring much longer. Certainly, films like Transformers: Age of Extinction, or this past Friday's Guardians of the Galaxy, still pull in money. All the same, though: as both an economic and cultural device, few big summer films are able to hold ubiquitous importance in the seasonal conversation.

Which is, in many ways, what makes Jaws such a marvelous artifact: not only because the forty-year-old film holds up (and, oh Lord, it does), but because it gestures back towards a moment in cinematic history where a mass media vision proved both so accomplished and accessible that it was able to capture a national imagination with such simple athletic visual language. Nowhere in Jaws do you see the spectacle of a Bay film, but still, the picture manages to hold attention in ways that the million dollar CGI destruction of Chicago in Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Big Robots: The Third One) never could. I don't want to make this into some attack on modern cinema. There are plenty of writers out there who are doing that perfectly well. Rather, for me, leaving the cinema after 130 minutes of brutal tension, I found myself not lamenting what we may have lost, but mesmerized by the vision of what has endured.

I am of the opinion that Jaws is not only Spielberg's best film, but also -- for all intents and purposes -- a perfect movie. From the wonderful performances turned in by Roy Scheider (as police chief Martin Brody), Richard Dreyfuss (as marine biologist Matt Hooper), and Robert Shaw (as Ahab stand-in) Quint, to Spielberg's miraculous building of tension, Jaws moves forward with rhythm and intention that eludes even accomplished modern day blockbusters. Much has been said since the film's release about Spielberg's choice to keep the shark off-screen for most of the film, but no technical discussion of that decision can come close to encapsulating the wonderful terror of the Great White's silhouette as it moves ominously towards a capsized boater who has pulled up alongside Brody's son in the pond. And that severed leg sinking down to the sandy bottom in the aftermath? It's a masterclass in titrated violence.

Part of what makes Jaws such a powerful film -- in my humble and blinkered opinion -- is it's ability to seamlessly and subtly interweave intimacy with spectacle. We all remember the shudder-inducing crunch of the shark biting into a downed Quint as he slides -- screaming -- down the deck of his own boat (a scene, which, to this day, manages to upset me), but we often forget the smaller moments of closeness to these characters that allow the terror to mount so gracefully. This is not because they are unmemorable. Rather, it is because -- as opposed to some of Spielberg's later accomplishments -- they intermingle with the tension of the narrative in such a natural organic way. There's a moment early in the film where Brody's wife interrupts his research on sharks, before wrapping her arms around him and suggesting that they, "get drunk and fool around." As a beat in such an agile and relentless narrative, it can quickly evaporate from a viewer's mind (perhaps overshadowed by the subsequent bit of comic relief where Mrs. Brody forces her son out of his new boat after seeing an old drawing of a shark punching through the hull of a fishing vessel), but the small ripples -- it's tiny human implications -- reverberate through the film's climax. Aboard Quint's ship, the sense of vulnerability and isolation that Spielberg conjures stands in direct and frightful opposition to this level of comfort and coziness. With every small moment he uses to build the humming mundane joy of Amity as an island, the director gives himself something to rip away from us once the stage moves to a pitiless seascape.

Ultimately, Jaws isn't about anything truly groundbreaking, thematically. It's about Martin Brody overcoming his fear of the ocean (which we are reminded of by the on-the-nose dialogue between Brody and Hooper as they swim back towards shore), and going through the steps of the hero's journey (more or less). But where other thrillers and adventures can be lambasted for these unremarkable structures poking through into the narrative (the chosen one, the making of choices, the essence of responsibility), Jaws manages to build such a wonderful system around its been-there-done-that thematic skeleton that the recognition of cliche seems more a testament to the film's ability to capture a sense of un-special reality than an argument against it as a piece of tripe. Whereas, in films like Lincoln or Saving Private Ryan or even Close Encounters, Spielberg can be praised for his ability to remind us of how miraculous important things are, Jaws stands out for a more powerful species of alchemy: the ability to take familiar rhythms and find power and closeness and horror in them.

After leaving Jaws this July, I was slightly more willing to go to the bathroom than I had been after I first saw it on television. All the same, I could not shake it. There's something incredibly gratifying about watching art endure, and while Jaws has only had about fifteen years of sway over me, the sight of a theater full of those who have loved it longer was a very special thing. We all jumped in unison when that decomposed head leaps out at Hooper from the bowels of the abandoned fishing boat. That's something very special.