Before The Meg, there was Jaws.
All around me, buses and tube stations are being flooded with adverts for THE MEG, a new mega monster shark movie with Jason Statham.
I cannot WAIT to see this film.
This new Sharkstravaganza covers a topic close to my heart- the Megalodon conspiracy.
Megalodon (the ‘meg’ referred to in the movie’s title) was a prehistoric super shark, related to the great white but roughly three times bigger, which went extinct around 2 million years ago.
OR DID IT?
I have ruined so many pleasant social gatherings by explaining at length the theory that Megalodon could still be present in our oceans to this very day. I even have a folder of evidence saved on my phone to back up my case for a Megalodon still being out there, which everyone has always been very polite about, whilst changing the subject.
So, you can well imagine my triumph when I first saw the trailer for The Meg, this summer’s blockbuster which imagines the reality of my favourite theory. From what I’ve seen so far, it looks like it will be a super fun movie AND launches my favourite topic of conversation back into public interest. Thanks Hollywood.
But why is it that shark movies and theories capture my imagination, and the imagination of so many?
I think the answer lies back in 1975, when Steven Spielberg suddenly became one of the most important directors in the film industry by releasing a little film called Jaws, changing the public’s perception of sharks forever.
There is so much about Jaws which remains iconic to this day. The format of the poster has been repurposed hundreds, if not thousands of times to try and sell shark movies, documentaries or merchandise. The two note theme tune means ‘SHARK!’ to anyone who hears it, even 43 years after the film was released.
But let’s be real here. Now we have computer animation that means a shark movie is as easy to make as any other film. More recently made shark films like The Shallows (2016) are able to use technology to make a far more realistic looking shark than Spielberg’s mechanical monster robot shark, lovingly nicknamed Bruce. Bruce the robot shark was famously crap and broke down so many times that Spielberg had to write a lot more character development for the humans in the film to make up for lost shark time. Maybe Bruce used his fake shark intuition to help him to create a better film… it’s a theory.
Side note-The charming Australian Great White Shark in Finding Nemo is named Bruce after the robot shark from Jaws. How sweet is that? I guess in showbusiness, Great White Shark solidarity is important.
So why, after 43 years of cinematic development that has led to Hollwood producing bigger and better shark movies, should you spend your time watching Jaws, when you could just wait to see The Meg for your sharky thrills?
Let me lay down some reasons why I feel that Jaws, the great grandad of the shark film genre, stands up to the young guns of shark based flicks to this day.
We don’t see the shark (for most of the film actually)
Now, it’s widely known that this was not the original plan for the film. As I mentioned before, Bruce the robot shark was a real pain in the arse and his first $150k incarnation actually sank to the bottom of the sea and stayed there the first time it was put in water. Spielberg planned to have a LOT more shark in the movie by using these advanced ROBO SHARKS, which actually turned out to be a load of pants.
Whether it was anyone’s original intention or not, we spend the MOST OF THE MOVIE not getting a good view of the shark. We get a bit of a splash during the beach attack (more on that later), a rough glimpse during the boating lake incident and then, a whole one hour and twenty one minutes into the film, we first get a full frontal view of this bad boy.
The effect of this is something rare in modern films, we’re made to wait for a pay-off. We’ve heard the music, we’ve seen what the shark sees, we’ve seen the body count, but we haven’t seen the shark! For me, this makes the shark a thousand times scarier. Yes, poor old Bruce is beginning to show his age in comparison to modern movie sharks, but by the time he pops up for some yummy chum from Chief Brody, we’re so excited that it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter how much more realistic the modern movie sharks are, we see so much of them that actually, we care less.
We are the shark
From the opening shots of the film, we are given a shark’s eye perspective of the ocean. Without the music, the opening sequence of cruising around the ocean floor is rather beautiful. The way that the film cuts between the dark and silent-but-for- theme-tune underwater world of the shark and the noisy and often harshly lit world of the humans, gave me a sense of sympathy for the shark. His world is the same one it’s been for a long time, but ours only gets noisier and brighter and further into his.
I think it’s important that we see the splashing of humans from the shark’s perspective. A generous audience member might be able to see the shark as just doing what he’s always done, investigating unknown sounds and shapes with his teeth.
Later in the film it does seem like he’s getting a bit more personal, but because we’ve seen the shark’s POV for a little bit, we’re given the option of giving him the benefit of the doubt for a little bit of the film.
The carefully crafted tension
If you’re not up for watching the whole of the movie, have a look on youtube for the beach scene. This short scene is an absolute masterclass in building tension. And guess what- no clearly visible shark shots!
There are some amazing video essays on youtube that break down the camera techniques that Spielberg uses to misdirect our attention and build panic in the run up to the attack.
I won’t bore you with the nitty gritty here. Put simply, the audience knows that a shark attack is coming in this scene, but we don’t know where to look to expect it! We’re given busy shots and sweeping frames that make us search for the possible victim and/or shark, before it is finally shown, frustratingly far away.
You can’t help but love the dolly zoom shot of Chief Brody seeing the attack. Perhaps it was the inspiration for the dramatic superzoom on Instagram stories.
The human characters are so real
If the shark was taken from Jaws and replaced with any other emergency, a disease outbreak, zombies, a terrorist attack- the scripted human characters would still work. They respond as any group of humans facing and unknown threat would. Some ignore the threat to keep business running smoothly, others look at the science behind the threat, others immediately search for someone to blame. There are instances of these characters present behind every emergency in the news today. Look for them, you’ll find them. I’m not naming any names.
I find Quint, the salty old shark hunter, a really interesting character. He’s got a personal vendetta against all sharks since his horrifying shark attack experience during WW2 and has adopted a scorched earth policy to solving shark problems. Kill every shark because there’s no such thing as a good shark. If he was an elderly uncle at Christmas, he’d be the one you do your best not to mention Brexit to.
Apparently when he first listened to John Williams’ soundtrack for the movie, Spielberg thought it was a joke. I guess the joke is on you Spielberg, because ol’ Johnboy had only managed to create the most iconic piece of music in film history using only TWO NOTES.
If you watch Jaws with no sound on, the whole mood of the film is gone, that’s how you know you’ve got a good soundtrack. The shark perspective shots that I spoke about earlier are matched with the carefully building pace of the music that tell us just how close the shark is getting. I also like that the music gives us a couple of red herrings towards a shark attack and the fact that the music is actually missing from our first shot of the shark. It feels like Spielberg tricked us- there can’t be a shark there, we didn’t hear the music! What do you mean the shark didn’t get them, we heard the music!
IT’S CINEMA HISTORY-YOU SHOULD APRECIATE CINEMA HISTORY.
Jaws broke box office records. It made $471 million. It was one of the first summer blockbusters, as before Jaws, studios thought launching films in summer was a waste of time. Some people credit the success of Jaws with the heatwave of 1975, meaning that people spent more time in the cinema so that they could enjoy the air-con- It’s a theory. Jaws was one of the first huge cultural phenomenon films, influencing TV, toys and cinema for years to come. It remains one of the most easily recognizable films of all time. It’s awesome. You should watch it.
I personally owe a great debt to Jaws. I snuck the DVD out of my godfather’s things when I was only 8 and was thrilled to covertly watch my first film with an 18 certificate. I was scared shitless. Over the next few years, my swimming improved faster than anyone could have anticipated. As soon as I started swimming, I heard the theme tune play in my head and my body went into survival mode. I knew sharks couldn’t get into pools, but WHAT IF??
As a grown woman I like to think I’m past this Jaws inflicted terror- that is until I swim in the sea and something touches my leg.
Go out and enjoy The Meg when it comes out next week, but don’t forget that Jaws is where it all started.
Got a taste for shark movies? Here’s some more of my personal faves
Open water- Hand held cameras record horrendously tense experience of abandoned scuba divers. So tense it’s a full buttock workout.
Deep Blue Sea- During this film a genetically modified shark corners LL Cool J, forcing him to get into an oven, which the shark then turns on. I’m just saying.
Jaws 3- Jaws is back! But Spielberg’s long gone, the budget’s been cut and the shark seems to be made of Papier Mache! Oh and there’s an underwater theme park! It’s very stupid but has helped me in fragile moments. I don’t even want to talk about Jaws 4: The Revenge.