Kaitlin McNabb
10 min readJul 25, 2018

JAWS is the greatest shark movie of all time. What’s the second?

I’m trying to teach myself photoshop if that isn’t already painfully apparent.

From the shockingly unwatchable to ridiculously good, the Sharkometer series dissects every shark movie according to the GOAT Jaws.
Read the Part 1 roundup on How to Find the Best Shark Movie Since Jaws.

Jaws is the greatest shark movie of all time.
It is the answer I give when asked “what’s your favourite movie?”
It is the childhood anecdote I tell about our family game of going swimming after every time the shark attacks someone.
It is the reason I love sharks. And why I still think sharks come out of pool drains.

Here’s what I’m not going to do: explain to you why I love Jaws. It has been judged, time and again, by a lot of smart people, and already deemed the greatest. It doesn’t need to be judged again. It is the judgement.

Here’s what I’m going to do: create a rubric of what makes Jaws the reigning shark movie and use that to judge other shark movies to determine why or how they fail us and/or why or how they’re great and, eventually, which is second, third, and so on.

I mean, we do it anyway, so let’s make an official matrix, shall we?

Here’s how it works: I’ve used the expert opinions of many people I found on the Internet and my own huge biases to develop the seven categories of the review matrix and assigned arbitrary values to determine a shark movie’s worthiness and placement in the canon of shark movies or what I’m calling the Sharkometer.

Welcome to the definitive and totally unbiased Jaws matrix.

Note: In the spirit of a broken mechanical shark, I just drew this and took a picture.

Let’s break it down!

  1. divine intervention
    Jaws should never have been made — it was an impossible effort.

It’s a well-known fact that the production of Jaws was absolutely plagued by a nightmare horror show of unending problems — chaotic script rewrites, battling actors, a young director, budget constraints, filming delays, and good old mechanical shark problems.

Richard Dreyfuss famously said “We started the film without a script, without a cast and without a shark.” And we’re all the better for it.

It’s now universally acknowledged that had these problems not arose, Jaws would never be the masterpiece, the original blockbuster, the Spielberg launching pad, or shark movie to end all shark movies that it is.

The intervention of fate cascaded onto every facet of Jaws and made it more than a shark movie — and it is this omnipresence that knits the entire matrix together.

Had there been no mechanical problems with Bruce the Shark, Spielberg would have utilized the shark more and never altered the visual narrative of the film.

Had Spielberg not ordered a complete script rewrite, final scriptwriter Carl Gottlieb would never have infused humour and been gifted the improvised classic “We need a bigger boat.”

Had Spielberg not shot on open water and lengthened the shoot, an extended editing time would never have led to the discovery of a continuity error and Hooper’s ultimate survival.

In the end, we owe it all to fate. (And a lot of talent.)

Value rating: 1 beautiful waterfall

2. Hitchcockian flare
Some have said that what makes Jaws the greatest shark film of all-time is that it isn’t a shark film at all, but rather a film about humanity as revealed by a shark.

This idea in large part is due to the delay of the reveal of the shark, which was birthed out of mechanical problems that rendered the shark unusable or in other words “On its first day on the job, the shark promptly sank to the bottom of Nantucket Sound.”

This slight inconvenience forced Spielberg to rethink the narrative and ultimately go back to the the age-old adage WWAHD or “What Would Alfred Hitchcock Do?” Spielberg channeling Hitchcock would surmise that it’s what we don’t see that is truly frightening and give the film a fluidity that allows the audience to layer over their own fears and theories of what is truly being revealed.

Is Jaws a morality tale where on-land behaviour dictates watery ends as Ryan Kermode suggests? Or is Jaws the study of masculinity and male helplessness as Julia Patt suggests? Or is Jaws the study of America and capitalist greed in the face of tragedy as twitter suggests? Or is it really just a film about shark versus man as Steven Spielberg suggests?

Value rating: 10 gold medals

3. filming techniques or, simply, filmin’
Delaying the reveal of the shark forced Spielberg to employ a variety of filming techniques that would heighten suspense and, you know, make it seem less like the main feature of the movie was noticeably absent.

We’re treated to four main examples: (1) the shark POV cam, (2) ropes in a box, (3) the dolly zoom, and (4) the extra long shot.

The shark point-of-view (POV) shot is, surprise!, a Hitchcock technique — used correctly it puts the audience in the mind and body of the killer. For example, right off the top, we’re in it: we’re slicing through the opening credit waters, we’re targeting kicking legs, we’re viciously striking. It’s such a visceral moment that the iconic movie poster recreates the thought the audience envisions while watching it.

Ropes in a box is the good old-fashioned technique of hooking cables to a woman’s jean shorts and having six men yank the cords around. Paired with setting the camera at water level and making the audience eye level with Chrissie as she is thrashed around by the shark creates a death scene that “make[s] the audience feel like they’re not only in the ocean, but about to drown.”

The dolly zoom into Brody’s face is arguably the most famous scene in JAWS — so famous in fact that some incorrectly credit Spielberg with creating it, not Irmin Roberts for Hitchcock (yes me. it was me. to be fair it’s referred to as the Jaws shot). Regardless, Spielberg’s use of the dolly zoom is prefaced by Truffaut-style jump cuts that visualize Brody’s perspective and irritate and distract viewers. It creates a frantic pace that is abruptly silenced zooming in to Brody’s sudden realization that the shark. is. here… and then the entire scene breaks into a whole new set of chaos.

Poor Ben Gardner. He never saw it coming, and neither did we — until his rotting mutilated head shot out of the boat after an uncomfortably long time. The score slowly builds as the scene draws out, upended by musical misdirects and murky milky water (why are you investigating at night?!); we’re waiting for a shark attack and then bam! rotting head! horrified scream!… it gets you every time.

Value ranking: four video cameras

4. editing like a Mother Cutter
This glorious, undervalued and overlooked skill is on full display in Jaws with Verna “Mother Cutter” Fields showcasing “an absolute master class in editing.”

Much has been said about Fields’ contributions to the film, some going as far as to suggest she saved it in the editing room — but that’s not exactly true. Fields’ visual eye and technical approach were absolutely key in shaping the movie, as her Academy Award for Editing contends, but Jaws didn’t need saving at that point, especially since her editing was present well-before the cutting room floor.

Her steadfast “less is more” approach when showing the shark riled Spielberg at times but was ultimately the key “two-frame difference” as he said between “something really scary and something that looked like a great white floating turd.”

Her expert jump cuts between juxtaposed scenes executed Spielberg’s vision of heighten tension perfectly: Chrissie rips through the bloody water cut to Tom gleefully stumbling on the beach; Brody frantically scans the water for the shark cut to Pipette the dog playing fetch and beachgoers frolicking in the water.

Her own pool served as the last-minute set to reshoot Ben Gardner’s death scene and apply that extra long shot and crescendoing score that would make it pop.

Fields was a masterful technician and that was just one part of her editing: great editing works in tandem with production. So, Fields fused herself into the film and conceived of visual moments together with Spielberg and the crew. And that’s a true Mother Cutter.

Value ranking: two scissors

5. use of humour
The novel was a story about an extra-martial love affair, a mayor menaced by mobsters, and a killer shark hunted by a band of three unsympathetic men.

The script, under Spielberg’s vision, cut the subplots, tightened the focus, and importantly, called for a lighter tone: enter Carl Gottlieb.

Gottlieb deepened the constant state of anxiety by stirring humour into the horror. Almost every appearance of the shark comes directly on the heels of a joke — the careful orchestration of screams, laughs, and foreboding silence keeps the audience emotionally off balance.”

Humour and a keen sense of awareness, made the off-stage feuding actors and on-stage band of unlikelies a beloved trio. Most famous is the scar-comparing, drunken sing-a-long bonding moment aboard the Orca right before the shark busts through the floor boards and ignites the final act. The juxtaposition between humour and horror upends us for sure, but it is this moment, this exact moment, that endears us to this motley crew and transforms them from dispirit elements to our flawed heroes.

It’s why Quint’s protracted death scene is particularly awful. It’s why we feel relief when Hooper triumphantly appears after the shark cage is destroyed. It’s why we just can’t believe Brody actually killed the damn shark.

Value rating: five popsicles

6. lack of CGI
I’m on-record as decidedly hating CGI, specifically, hating CGI creatures and loving animatronic creatures. There is good CGI — think Westworld in 1973, Tron in 1982, and Terminator in 1984 — but creature features are a curious breed.

Relying upon CGI to make a creature feature more realistic actually works in opposition to it — think Jurassic Park versus Jurassic World. Things are too seamless and overt, stripping the audience of their imagination, and CGI removes the visceral element of actually seeing something in the water right there beside that person.

Luckily, CGI wasn’t really in use when filming JAWS — it would have diminished the visceral connection and suspense and, most typically, been overused. Spielberg suggests as much stating CGI “would have ruined the movie” because it would have allowed him to show the shark a lot more and it’s the dearth of the shark that makes the movie.

There is a difference between a slightly unrealistic mechanical shark and a slightly unrealistic CGI shark and, like those two frames, it’s the difference between imagining a life-long nightmare in the water with you and abating your fear with a green screen.

Value rating: three mechanical shark fins

7. wildcard
The wildcard. The X-factor. The je ne said quoi that gives the movie it’s special something.

For JAWS, it’s Steven Spielberg no question. His vision for the film and its “go-for-broke inventiveness” and execution that “positions [the] characters — in terrifying and ticklish ways — between heroism and antiheroism” is what makes us feel certain this film is more than a film about a shark, even if Spielberg is adamant it is just that.

It’s the film that could have sunk his career, but instead launch the sails of decades of great films. We owe it to a broken mechanical shark. We owe it to fate. We owe it to the creative heroics of a young Spielberg who wouldn’t stop even as his ship literally ruptured and sank to the bottom of the ocean.

Value rating: one Steven Spielberg head

That’s our metric. What happens now?

Bring on the Sharkometer! I’m going to slowly sift through every little shark movie I can get my hands on, rate them according to these seven criteria, and present you with the findings and probably some roundups of where we’re at. Things are going to get weird everybody. We’re going to delve into our fears and motivations, the meaning of intention and morality, and above all why we are so obsessed with shark movies.

Disclaimers are thus

  1. These are my opinions and thoughts and feelings. If you have (thoughtful) opinions, feedback, movie recommendations, articles, or whatever, get at me here or on twitter. I love to talk to people about sharks!
  2. Yes I made all the graphics myself. Yes I’m teaching myself pixlr. Yes I would like your constant praise for all of that.
  3. We’re here to have fun and argue about things we love. To that end, there will be typos because it’s hard to write and edit your own shit and weird tangents and a difference of opinion. Let it go or politely let me know. There is no other option.
  4. I roll hard for Deep Blue Sea.

The first movie in the Sharkometer is…Deep Blue Sea

Fully rated Sharkometer movies:

The undeniable greatness of ‘Deep Blue Sea’
‘Sharknado’ is the first great movie of twitter
The crushing disappointment of ‘The Meg’
The silent panic of ‘The Shallows’
‘47 Meters Down’ knows your darkest fears
The murky ethics of ‘The Reef’

The tragic failings of ‘Hammerhead: Shark Frenzy’
How to find the best shark movies since Jaws: Part 1

‘Bait 3D’ and the case for mediocrity
The holiday magic of ‘Santa Jaws’
‘Shark Night 3D’ and the joy of fear
‘Red Water’ and the trappings of a shark movie
The diminishing returns of ‘Deep Blue Sea 2’
‘Blue Demon’ and the evolution of the shark movie
Roger Corman and the Legend of ‘Sharktopus’