DVD Drop: Shark’s in the water
Undisputed classic and all-around badass flick Jaws arrives on Blu-ray
A scene from Jaws (Universal Pictures)
First of all: Yes, I know The Hunger Games is technically coming to disc this week, but Saturday's a long time away, so we'll tackle it in next week's column. Besides, this is the week that Jaws comes to Blu-ray, and believe me, that is reason enough not to talk about anything else.
See, Jaws is the greatest American movie ever made. Sure, The Godfather is darker, Citizen Kane is more elegant and Vertigo is psychologically more complex, but as far as visceral cinematic immersion goes, Jaws is unparalleled. Steven Spielberg's 1975 thriller not only invented the concept of the summer blockbuster, it perfected it; 37 years later, there isn't a movie that can touch this one for intensity, virtuosity or sheer moviemaking skill.
I've lost count of the number of times I've seen Jaws. I know I've seen it theatrically four or five times over the years -- twice just this summer, when Universal's gorgeous digital restoration played Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox -- and every time, the audience is instantly captivated. Like the shark itself, which is a perfect organism that does nothing but "swim and eat and make little sharks," Jaws is the perfect movie -- a film that turns every potential weakness into a strength, and amplifies its actual strengths beyond all expectation.
From the horrific, unblinking presentation of that first attack -- when poor Susan Backlinie's screaming goes on just long enough for us to think it may never stop -- to the rousing man-versus-nature climax where Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw and Roy Scheider each take a turn facing off against the 25-foot beast that's been feeding on bathers off Amity Island, Jaws is all things to all people. It's a relentless horror movie, an intriguing examination of changing concepts of masculinity, a sly culture-clash comedy and a thrilling adventure. And it all feels utterly immediate and real.
The story goes that Jaws is the greatest accident in the history of cinema. Spielberg's original plan was to make a conventional monster movie, but the mechanical shark built for the production kept breaking down. With thousands of dollars going to waste every day as the cast and crew hung around Martha's Vineyard waiting to work, Spielberg and screenwriter Carl Gottlieb had to figure out a way to make the movie play without showing their star attraction; they ended up rewriting the entire first half of the picture to keep the shark off-screen, giving Scheider more and more to do as Amity's harried police chief and expanding his relationships with most of the supporting characters. By the time Scheider gets aboard the Orca to hunt the monster, we're watching a domestic drama that's been invaded by an unnatural horror.
By this point, I think you understand that I've spent a great deal of time thinking about Jaws. And indeed I have; I've owned every home-video release of the picture, seeing its presentation evolve from the original fixed-frame VHS transfer -- which only used the centre of the widescreen composition, and was virtually unwatchable -- to the passable pan-and-scan edition that followed a few years later, and then to the widescreen LaserDisc and DVD releases that arrived over the years.
Universal's new Blu-ray, mastered from the same restoration that played the Lightbox, is easily the best I've ever seen this movie look on the home screen; the shadow details are just right, film grain is respectfully carried over into the digital realm rather than smoothed into plastination, as is frequently the case with Universal catalogue titles, and the new surround soundtrack is acceptable -- though I prefer to stick to the original mono, which is also included.
The extras from the previous LD and DVD special editions have been carried over to the BD, including the full two-hour version of Laurent Bouzereau's 1995 documentary The Making of Jaws. There's also a new documentary, Erik Hollander's The Shark is Still Working, produced in 2007 but virtually unseen apart from a couple of film-festival screenings. Making its proper debut on the Blu-ray, it's a celebration of both Jaws and its influence on a new generation of moviemakers, made by someone who's even more of a true believer in the film's power than I.
So, yeah, you're probably going to want to pick up Jaws on Blu-ray this week. It's available in a combo edition, so if you don't yet have a BD player you can at least enjoy a standard-definition presentation of the remastered film. But if we're being honest here, this transfer -- this movie -- deserves to be seen in the best possible circumstances. And you know what that means.
You're gonna need a bigger screen.
E-mail Norman Wilner at firstname.lastname@example.org