There's a lot that can be said about the classic killer shark movie; its effects on sea water ecology, its status as a turning point in the director's career, as well as its status of something new which heralded a new age of blockbuster style releases in the subsequent years. But Jaws is a monster movie at the core. It's not a realistic look at the possibility of swimmers being attacked of the coast of Massachusetts, it's a story where a giant fish hunts the waters maliciously and then goes after the boat sent to kill it. Summer movies as we know them today will never contain this much blood. It's a creature feature of the best kind - elevating a potentially silly premise through film making craft.
Like Alien a few years later this takes a cheesy, well worn idea and polishes the hell out of it. It may seem literally worlds apart, but outside the mundane vacation setting there are plenty of similarities; things which make both work so well. There's plenty of suspense and drama to build up to the reveal of the killer. There are all kinds of eccentric characters to entertain us during the dramatic scenes with overlapping dialogue and wry banter. You remember these people, even the bit players like the Tiger Shark catching guy who pulls a stupid face when informed of the species. It's just as memorable as the threat itself, maybe more so. Both are also the source of countless imitations, some cheaper and less respectable than others to say the least in terms of sequels and knock-offs alike.
Within the narrative these elements come together pretty naturally, so it's never dull just to see Chief Brody going about his business. There are so many weird complaints and silly busy bodies in the first act that it's always fun to watch. Personal favourites include the lady reporting kids 'karate-ing' garden fences and the endless chit chat at the town hall. While wealthy biologist Hooper arrives pretty soon to help investigate the situation, unhinged boat captain Quint is kept out of the picture for large stretches. Like the Great White itself he's a larger than life personality, so it makes perfect sense to keep him to one side until the final hunting trip. These are all likeable, even if they're the sort of money obsessed types you love to hate.
Of course we eventually get to see some people turned into fish chow, and all the classic music cues and dolly zoom moments are here to enjoy. I don't think there has been such an economical use of music notes to create a sense of dread outside The Thing in 1982. If I'm honest some leitmotifs don't quite fit the tone, mainly the victory theme which shows up as the crew of the Orca use their harpoons and ropes against the antagonist. Interestingly the most gruesome moments of the big action showdown are without music at all, which makes it all the more nightmarish. There's not a huge amount of real violence, but they really use it where it counts here.
The beast itself is really sinister for the most part, even before Quint's monologue about his war time ship wreck experiences colour it in a fresh perspective. Shots of it going under people in the 'pond' area once the beaches really get busy are chilling every time, and the chum bucket reaction of an unsuspecting Brody is a both fun and unsettling. The endless robotic chewing of the prop shark Bruce is a major defect and gives its nature away, but you have to let them have it because of the trouble it caused to pull off. If anything the real bug bear I have is the use of stock footage, which never quite fits with the movement or scale of the special effects. There are too many looks at the face of a real shark which clash with the monster mouth parts they created. It's a minor thing but will raise discussion on every viewing about which things look fake or not.
Regardless it all works as an adventure and a horror film, of course your personal feelings on razor mouthed sea creatures could sway you more towards the latter. There are all kinds of additions that a standard genre movie of this kind would never include, whether it's the shooting stars after one of the shark encounters or the lines from the scar trading scene that is burnt into so many memories. Looking back into the Spielberg archives it's kind of an anomaly when you consider that his first great thriller Duel came before it, but there was little else afterwards (depending on your thought about who made Poltergeist). Further takes on the horror genre would have been great, but as it stands a couple of definitive entries to the cinema canon work well enough for me to be more than content.