JAWS: The Essential Blockbuster of Summer 2020

Amity Island, 1975  —  On a cool summer evening, a group of 20-somethings gathers on a stretch of beach to kill time, guzzle beer, and pass around a joint or two. The ocean waves crash in the distance, mixing in sound with the crackling of the fire and the gentle strum of a young man’s guitar. The breeze of the Atlantic is soothing and gentle, creating an idealistic image of the season that feels pulled from an old Hollister ad.

Across the crowd of youth, a young man makes eyes with a woman and she with him  —  the promise of love. As he follows her down the dunes toward the sea, he collapses in the sand. Too many beers will do that to you. Meanwhile, the young woman advances to the water, shedding her clothes in the process. She swims to a nearby buoy as the moon glistens on the water, an image of youthful freedom and beauty.

But, at that moment, something grabs her, yanking her under the water. Before too long, she’s gasping for air as her body is violently flung around like a doll in a dog’s mouth. Her blood-curdling scream pierces the night air begging for someone, anyone, to rescue her.

JAWS: The Essential Blockbuster of Summer 2020
source: Universal Pictures

45-years later, the opening of Jaws is still the thing of nightmares. It’s an image of summer, a season of fellowship, relaxation, and picturesque beauty, now violently shaken by a force of nature. Now, in 2020, a different kind of natural enemy is wreaking havoc. Since March, COVID-19 has been taking its toll on the country, killing over thousands, and prompting heated debates about safety vs. economic livelihood, as many businesses and events have had to close their doors to slow the spread of the virus.

Now, just as Steven Spielberg’s horror classic celebrates a significant anniversary, it’s managed to become the defining movie of the summer once again, now for allegorical reasons as opposed to box-office. While films such as 2011’s Contagion or 1995’s Outbreak have garnered second lives as a result of being star-studded thrillers about viral outbreaks, Jaws has managed to be the film most in-tune with societal reaction to COVID-19 here in the U.S.

Jaws’ central conflict

While its last third is the kind of high-seas adventure reminiscent of Moby Dick, Jaws’ central conflict is one of economics vs. safety. The fictional town of Amity is beholden to the summer months for its livelihood. Without business from out-of-town tourists, many of its residents will find themselves struggling to pay the bills. Add on a mayor depending on a booming economy to secure his re-election campaign (sound familiar?), and you create a complicated weed of local politics that police-chief Martin Brody must navigate to protect the community.

Though we think of Jaws as the kick-start of the blockbuster era, it remains just as rooted in the cynicism as many of its 70s counterparts. Brody’s attempts at action are routinely debilitated by systemic failures and a desire by those around him to sweep a problem under the rug in hopes it will just go away. “You yell barracuda, people go ‘huh, what?’ You yell shark, we’ve got a panic on our hands on the fourth of July,” Mayor Vaughn exclaims in an early scene, urging Brody to label the first accounted attack as a mere boating accident for fear of a PR disaster.

JAWS: The Essential Blockbuster of Summer 2020
Source: Universal Pictures

It’s hard not to see real-world similarities as local and national leaders, including the president, have faced criticism over their response to COVID-19, with the president, in particular, going as far as to suggest fewer tests to produce smaller numbers of confirmed cases. But, Jaws’ biting commentary on communities grappling with threats becomes even more darkly nuanced with the introduction of Matt Hooper, a marine biologist brought in by Brody to consult on the problem.

Biting Commentary

Hooper’s arrival isn’t met by eager ears but instead raised eye-brows and off-handed remarks. His expertise is seen as elitist, if not dangerous to the stability of the town by officials other than Brody. When a group of fisherman real in a hulking tiger-shark, Hooper is quick to point out that the animal’s bite radius doesn’t match the marks left on the body of an earlier victim. But, the reaction from the community and local leadership is sharp and defensive. “You’d love that wouldn’t ya, get your name in the National Geographic,” Mayor Vaughn remarks a few scenes later.

In Jaws, the real threat becomes blissful ignorance as information vital for the safety of beachgoers becomes a threat to the community’s way of life, according to its leaders. The solutions that are valued become those that are easiest to swallow and least inconvenient, no matter how ineffective they ultimately become. By the time the Fourth of July rolls around, the waters around Amity Island are a blood bath. Spielberg’s filmmaking becomes more savage than its been since pushing further into terror than Jurassic Park and without the weight of importance of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. The shark, after all, has no ideology. It can’t be waited out or ignored. It exists only to kill.

For those of us living through the summer of COVID-19, its hard not to see the parallels as states such a Florida are seeing mass spikes in cases following swift reopening strategies. Information from health officials on items as simple as wearing masks in public has become a lightning rod for political division, as individuals scoff off strategies to slow the spread of infection simply because they provide an inconvenience. As we approach 2020’s Fourth of July, it’s impossible not to view the world through the dark prism of the holiday in the film. The hysteria, fear, and overall tension of that scene are already in the air. We’re beginning to face the uncomfortable truth that our attempts at normalcy might actually be backfiring against us.

JAWS: The Essential Blockbuster of Summer 2020
source: Universal Pictures

But, as terrifying and haunting as Jaws’ first two-thirds are in the summer of 2020, its last third, the high seas adventure, might offer a hopeful look to the future, or rather a guiding beacon to how we combat the threat at hand.

Hopeful Beacon

There’s always been something crucial to me about having three wildly different men who board The Orca to catch the shark in the film’s climax. Brody reflects both a sense of duty but also helplessness. He’s the chief of police, tasked with protecting his community but also finds himself crippled by a fear of the sea and, maybe, more importantly, government bureaucracy. But while Brody displays exhaustion, Hooper goes for frustration and annoyance. He’s a character constantly battling for authority, approaching each interaction with a chip on his shoulder, one that immediately classes with Quint, the drunken shark hunter who relies merely on his mysticism and his salt-of-the-earth ways.

All three men bicker and bump up against each other, with their warring personalities and methods. And yet, despite their differences and gripes, Brody, Hooper, and Quint manage to form a microcosm for individuals putting aside their differences for the good of the community. In the film, victory only comes through cooperation.

In Jaws, biting criticism of institutional gives way to a rousing call for collective action. The realization becomes that only through cooperative teamwork and some sacrifices can real progress be made. That makes the film not only an eery reflection of the world we currently find ourselves in but hopeful call to arms on how to work with each other to accomplish something more substantial than ourselves for the greater good.

What other movies do you think speak to the moment we are in as a country or planet? Let us know in the comments below!

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