If Jaws were released today, rather than 40 years ago, it’d be greeted as a mid-budget creature feature, a small-town drama centered around three relatable characters. There’s action, yes, and suspense, and some shocking gore. But it bears little resemblance to the blockbuster culture it’s credited for creating: Steven Spielberg’s film was given a near-unprecedented “wide” release, opening on 409 screens when it hit cinemas on June 20, 1975. Last weekend, Jurassic World debuted on 4,274. Jaws might be the primordial ooze from which Hollywood’s modern-day strategies emerged, but to look back on it now, it’s almost disarmingly quaint.
Jaws’s strengths and weaknesses have been dissected at length in the years since its release. Only Spielberg’s third feature-length film at the time, the adaptation of Peter Benchley’s hit novel about a man-eating shark went almost three times over budget and featured a mechanical prop that looked the furthest thing from terrifying. To combat that, Spielberg mostly shot around it, building tension through underwater point-of-view footage and John Williams’ landmark, minimalist score. Rolled out nationwide with the kind of blitzkrieg advertising and promotional tie-ins that would later become Hollywood norms, Jaws is the prototype of the modern blockbuster, and was the highest-grossing film of all time until Star Wars came out two years later. If there’s anything you love or hate about the big-budget, studio action movie, it can probably be traced back to Jaws. And yet what makes the film work is not the history-making blueprint it set out, but instead all of the charming, unsung idiosyncrasies that make it a great film.