Blu-ray Review: Jaws

Universal Studios must have been an interesting place in the 1970s. As Alfred Hitchcock’s career wound down, Steven Spielberg’s started up. I don’t know if they ever met, but there’s no doubt that the young film school graduate had studied the master’s work.

In his second theatrical feature and first big hit (and also, I think we can say today, his first masterpiece), Spielberg showed complete control and understanding of Hitchcockian manipulation. Watch the early scene where Police Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) sits at the beach, nervously watching the swimmers and knowing that a shark may be prowling the water. Notice how extras cross close to the camera, creating wipes as we move in to closer and closer shots of Scheider. Or how a shift-focus tells us that he’s not paying attention to the person talking to him.

To say nothing of the times where Spielberg makes you jump out of your seat and scream–at least the first time you see the movie.

People associate Jaws with three men in a boat, but the picture is more than half over jaws2before the shark chase really starts. Before that, Spielberg treats us to a suspenseful, witty variation of Henrik Ibsen’s classic play, An Enemy of the People. Like Ibsen’s  Thomas Stockmann, Brody knows there’s something deadly in the water. But the town depends on visitors coming for the water, and that sets up a moral vs. economic conflict. (I don’t know if Jaws novelist Peter Benchley intentionally borrowed from Ibsen or even commented on the similarity.)

Benchley and Spielberg paint Brody as a more troubled and wavering figure than Ibsen’s noble Stockmann. When first confronted with public pressure, Brody caves in. It takes him a long time to become a hero. In addition, he’s scared of the water.

But the fun really begins when he climbs into that little boat with old salt Quint (Robert Shaw) and young shark expert Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and the story moves from Ibsen to Herman Melville–the quest for the great white shark. While Brody tries to prove himself in a job for which he is profoundly wrong, the two experts–Quint and Hooper–clash over everything. It doesn’t help that Quint appears to be totally insane.

And all the while, the title character is waiting to eat them.

Jaws‘ phenomenal success changed how Hollywood operates (for two years, it was jaws_crowdthe biggest hit of all time). It created the summer blockbuster, which is now pretty much all that the major studios care about. Yet by today’s standards, it’s almost an independent, or at least indiewood film. The dialog-heavy first half, the social criticism, the rare, brief glimpses of the "monster," and the relatively low death count would make it art house fare today.

Which is fine. That’s where masterpieces belong.

But there’s one aspect of the story that has always bugged me. Before they go to sea, Quint complains about taking Hooper. Why doesn’t he complain about taking the far less qualified Brody?

First Impression

jaws_boxThis Universal 100th Anniversary edition of Jaws comes in a standard two-disc Blu-ray case, with a slip cover.

When you insert the disc, it doesn’t just annoy you with trailers. It uses BD Live to stream trailers to you over the Internet. That takes longer than trailers already on the disc. Use the Skip Forward button on your remote to get passed them.

How it Looks

Beautiful. Newly restored, Jaws shows fine and bright detail like never before. Colors are spot on.

Does it look exactly as it looked in 1975? It certainly looks better than the last 35mm print of Jaws I saw, but that one was showing its age.

I have no complaints with this transfer.

How it Sounds

The disc includes two English soundtracks.

The default is a new 7.1 mix, in lossless DTS Master Audio. I only listened to a bit of this mix. It sounded great, and didn’t overdo the surrounds.

But I prefer the disc’s alternate: The original mono track, presented here in lossy, but not too lossy, DTS. It sounded crisp and clear, and had the immediacy that the story and setting required. Theoretically, a  lossless version would have been better, but I’m not sure I would have noticed the difference.

And the Extras

Universal has packed Jaws will so many extras they actually include instructions on the disc . Here’s what else they include:

  • Bookmarks: Press the green button on your remote and create a bookmark, so you can return to a favorite shot.
  • UHear: "Did I hear that line right?" Press the blue button on your remote and English subtitles turn on temporarily while the disc jumps back a bit.
  • The Making of JAWS: Two-hour documentary made in 1995 for the Laserdisc release. Very good.
  • Deleted Scenes and Outtakes: 14 minutes.
  • The Shark is Still Working: The Impact & Legacy of JAWS: 101 minutes. New documentary about the movie’s making and impact, which mostly avoids repeating stuff from the earlier doc. Oddly, this widescreen feature  is presented in standard def, letterboxed into a 4×3 video stream.
  • JAWS: The Restoration: 8 minutes. About the restoration.
  • From the Set: 9 minutes. British TV piece from 1984, while the film was being shot.
  • JAWS Archives: Very large selection of stills, divided into four categories: Storyboards, Production Photos, Marketing JAWS, and JAWS Phenomenon.
  • Theatrical Trailer
  • pocket BLU: Smartphone apps (for various platforms) that let you control Universal Blu-rays.
  • PlayStation 3 Controller
  • BD Live: This Internet-based Blu-ray technology is used more often for marketing than for real enhancements. And sure enough, select it here and you get a screen full of trailers. However, there’s an option on the BD-Live screen with the promising name Community. When I went to it, I was told that "There is currently no Community content for this title." Hopefully that will change after the disc hits the market.
  • DVD: The second disc in this two-disc set is a DVD, so you can watch the movie when you don’t have access to your Blu-ray player. It comes with a shorter, 50-minute version of the Making of doc.
  • Digital Copy: A sheet of paper provides a URL and password for downloading and/or streaming Jaws in assorted formats. That way, you don’t even need a DVD player.

    In all of those extras, you’ll find only one brief mention of Jaws II, Jaws 3-D, and Jaws: The Revenge. Yes, this film is so great that three bad sequels didn’t ruin its reputation.