As America fearfully reopens this summer and people cautiously creep with masks and distance-measuring eyes toward beaches and movie theaters, many may recall a classic summer movie about beaches, fear, and an unseen threat. The 1975 film Jaws provides a surprisingly suitable metaphor for our world of economic collapse, social uprising, and unseen killers.
Jaws is not a shallow picture, despite the deep defects of the mechanical shark. 27-year-old Steven Spielberg, embattled as he was with production setbacks, probably did not intend to create a fable for modern society with Jaws—much less a picture that even has Catholic undertones to it—but his dedication to telling a story well elevated a potentially campy movie to a film with a relevant message forty-five years after its release.
Jaws took the world by surprise with its pulsing two-note theme and an invisible aquatic menace that plunged audiences into paroxysms of exhilarating terror. The instantaneous popularity of Jaws made it the highest-grossing film of all time (until Star Wars came along two years later). Aggressive marketing and a wide release rendered Jaws the first of what is now known as the summertime blockbuster. Its commercial success remains matched by its historical impact, driving swimmers out of the ocean and maligning the Great White Shark for decades.
The value of Jaws as a cinematic social symbol lies in the phenomenon that the artistic expressions of popular culture—however wild or weird they may be—often unconsciously expresses diagnoses and remedies for popular corruptions. It is on a subconscious, allegorical level that Jaws is noteworthy, tapping, as it does, into the primal foundations of human nature and human economy.
The storyline is familiar. The island town of Amity relies on their tourist season for survival; but when a woman’s remains are washed up at low tide and the coroner assigns the cause of death as a shark attack, the chief of police closes the beaches. The mayor convinces the medical examiner to report the tragedy was due to a boating accident and demands the beaches be kept open for the sake of summer dollars.
After three more fatalities, the town hires a hard-bitten fisherman to kill the shark. The final act launches upon the high seas, as the cracked captain, joined by the rugged police chief and a quirky marine biologist, hunt down the leviathan in a desperate chase that employs overtures from Moby-Dick and The Old Man and the Sea in a Hitchcockian chess game of man against nature.
Forty-five years later, Jaws still resonates with viewers and withstands easy analysis and comparison. One angle of interpretation that renders the film a relevant and even powerful piece for those engaged in the struggle for Christian culture, is the theme of a society determined to willfully ignore a prevalent, pervasive threat instead of facing it and destroying it.
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