Back in June, when Jaws celebrated its 45th anniversary, film lovers everywhere waxed poetic about the influence of this incredible film. It’s true that Jaws has loomed large in our culture and continues to cut a powerful figure in film history. Jaws was the film that changed how movies are marketed. It inspired countless filmmakers, introduced new ways of shooting a film, and gave rise to sharks as a horror genre in and of themselves. The icon status of Jaws simply cannot be overstated.
All things considered, in its 45 years Jaws has occupied a place of cultural significance beyond how it functions as cinema. When considering Jaws in 2020, it’s apparent that the film has persisted as a highly political piece, in addition to being a cinematic revolutionary. Jaws has managed to stick in our minds for reasons that are totally external to the film itself. It has become political shorthand and the preferred language of activists.
For the uninitiated, Jaws was released in the summer of 1975. It was based on the novel by Peter Benchley (which featured much less of the shark than you’d think) and was directed by, at the time, newcomer Steven Spielberg. In Spielberg’s adaptation of the story, a massive Great White shark stalks the shorelines of the idyllic beach community of Amity Island. As more and more swimmers fall prey to the monster’s voracious appetite, a motley crew including a sailor, a scientist, and the local police chief set out to catch and kill the predator.
The film was a massive success upon its release and sent a shockwave through pop culture. Jaws was quite effective at scaring people out of the water, and therein lies the birth of its political influence. Jaws brought sharks before the public eye in a completely novel way, leading to an uptick in shark hunting and shark-related fear. The negative impact of the film on shark populations was so great that Peter Benchley, author of the original novel, condemned the film and its sequels and dedicated himself to environmental education and conservation efforts.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the shark genre inspired by Jaws—everything from The Meg to Sharknado—is entwined with environmental concerns. In film, sharks have been associated with everything from natural disasters (Sharknado), tampering with natural ecosystems (The Meg and Shark Night), and the weaponization of nature through modern technology (Deep Blue Sea and Sharktopus). Jaws made the shark a movie star and a figure in culture powerful enough to alter our behavior and relationship with nature. As we face increasing anxiety over the future of the environment and our impact on it, the shark on film has responded with a vengeance. Sharks now represent the fear of environmental retribution, I would argue.
Jaws is an unexpected herald of green initiatives. Still, the enduring love of the film and the continued public fascination with the shark have directly resulted in increased awareness of sharks. Discovery’s Shark Week is television’s longest running and most anticipated summer television event, and film lovers still arrive in large crowds to attend event screenings of Jaws and its sequels. Both externally and within the plot of the film, Jaws is speaking to larger political issues… and rallying the troops.
In 2020, Jaws has resurged in a more blatant political role: a harsh criticism of government corruption and greed. Fans of the film will remember that Jaws has two villains, the murderous shark and the greedy mayor of Amity Island. When the film’s hero Chief Brody seeks to shut down the beaches in the interest of public health and safety, the mayor protests and prioritizes the island’s local economy in the face of a deadly threat. You see where I’m going with this?
As the COVID-19 pandemic took root in the United States, memes featuring Amity’s out-of-touch mayor began to surface across the Internet. The connection between a local government official turning a blind eye to the danger in the water and the actions of the current administration downplaying the realities of the virus set itself up almost too perfectly. As literal beach closures and restrictions in public spaces continue around the country, many are still fixated on Jaws. At this point, to list every on-the-nose allegory between a fictional real estate tycoon turned “public servant” and the reality television version we are dealing with would be to double the length of this piece.
Jaws is a pointed illustration of how inaction leads to deadly consequences. It is not sufficient to ignore the danger, it is not prudent to downplay and mischaracterize the danger (or pin it on the wrong shark), and it is unacceptable to place the public at the mercy of a killer run rampant. Jaws doesn’t mince words when it comments on the consequences of such actions: government greed gets peopled killed. As if Jaws wasn’t prophetic enough, the eventual defeat of the danger is brought about through the cooperation of scientists, local authorities, and the lawman.
Jaws, as a political piece, goes deeper than criticism. It’s a teacher. Whether through the external movements it has inspired or the eerily relevant circumstances of the plot, Jaws is demanding our attention. Who could have known that a simple man versus monster plot could contain multitudes? I hope you’ll bring these ideas to your next viewing of the film.
Suffice to say that, at the ripe old age of 45, Jaws still resonates and speaks eloquently to what matters—if not a call for environmental awareness, then a callout of the callous endangerment of the public in the interest of profit. Jaws has taken a hefty bite out of our cultural sphere, there’s no doubt about it. Here’s to Jaws and a continued legacy as one of the all-time great films and a political piece with teeth!