In 1975, a now-famous theme song—a haunting melody, its foreboding refrain feigning cacophony—announced the presence of a shark; and the shark, in turn, taught us to fear the ocean. For almost forty years now, that shark has terrified audiences. But when a film like Jaws endures for this length of time, there must be something more, something deeper, than a fear of sharks that compels us to watch. The real reason that Jaws is terrifying is because it forces us to confront a reality we fear the most: our smallness. This sense of smallness, which is primarily achieved through the film’s theme of isolation, makes audiences feel feeble and helpless, out of control, and, thus, terrified
The film opens with a shark attack at a nighttime beach party, as a young woman named Chrissie Watkins (Susan Backlinie) leads her love interest away from the party and toward the beach for a romantic swim. The girl enters the water. Her would-be lover, being heavily intoxicated, passes out on the beach and is unable to follow. Alone in the ocean, Chrissie is pulled under the water. She resurfaces—but is then violently jerked back and forth like a rag doll. Her cries for help are in vain. Once again she is pulled under; this time, she does not return. This scene’s power to evoke fear stems from the fact that it depicts Chrissie as an isolated and, therefore, helpless sort of everyman figure. That is, as spectators, we acknowledge that we could very easily be in Chrissie’s position. And the realization that we cannot control nature—that we are powerless against it—fills us with fear. In addition, this theme of an isolation that magnifies our smallness becomes even more prevalent as the film progresses.
In Jaws we meet Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who has recently been appointed Chief of Police in Amity, a small island town. Brody, aware that there is a killer shark in the area, has to fight the self-serving city politicians and locals for the right to do his job. One of the central conflicts in the first half of the film, then, is not man versus nature but man versus man. The mayor is not willing to close the beaches for the fourth of July weekend because he does not want to cause a panic, hurt local businesses, and damage his own ego. Adding to Brody’s frustration is the fact that many of the locals do not trust him since he is not “not an islander.” People stare and make snide jokes and eventually turn on him when the shark takes a young boy’s life. In other words, Brody is an outsider; he feels impotent and dwarfed by his surroundings, both politically and socially.
In a later, particularly frightening scene, shark expert Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) comes face-to-face with a type of isolation that makes him acutely aware of his smallness. He dives into the dark and murky water to explore a wrecked fishing boat and discovers an enormous shark tooth. Then, he realizes the gravity of the situation: he is in the water with one of the world’s top predators. The unilluminated sea that dominates the shots in this scene gives the impression that the owner of that tooth could be lurking just out of sight. Suddenly, the body of a dead fisherman floats on screen. A closeup of Hooper’s terrified reaction is shown as the soundtrack blares shrilly. The terror of it all is that we are right there with Hooper—alone.
The theme of isolation reaches its apotheosis as Brody, Hooper, and Quint (Robert Shaw) take a ship out to sea to kill the shark. Brody must leave his family and face his fear of the ocean. There will be no land in sight where they are going. The ocean, its beautiful and serene surface cloaking the killer it hides, stretches for miles. Here, Spielberg does a marvelous job utilizing numerous long shots to show us just how alone the crew is. It is almost as if the ocean becomes a central character, a deadly foe in its own right. Finally, after a face-to-face encounter, Brody arrives at the logical conclusion: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
When taken as a whole, these scenes of isolation show us that there is something we fear more than people, oceans, and sharks. We fear our smallness above all, for we are accustomed to acting as if we are the center of the universe. Full of pride and selfishness, we are terrified to think that we can be brought so low. Indeed, what Jaws really shows us is that we are deeply afraid of being humbled—of losing control. Moreover, it pulls us out of our self-absorbed state and reminds us that we do not rule the world—that we are, in fact, tiny beings.
“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?” God asks.
Still, He cares for you.
Embrace your smallness.