Aidan Smith: Jaws vs The Meg reminds me cows are deadlier than sharks
I am a child of Jaws, or more specifically a spotty, quaking teenager. Steven Spielberg’s shark classic sunk its teeth into me at a tender age and has never let go. Sure, I’ve seen more artistic films since, but not one which inspired me to quote their most famous lines to my children. At bathtime the kids have all had to endure their father’s recreation of idyllic waters turning malevolent, prompting the dramatic declaration: “We’re gonna need a bigger boat.”
Three-quarters of the movie had elapsed before the complacent and tourist-greedy beach resort town took the fanged terror seriously and acknowledged that the great white had just as big an appetite for holidaymakers. It’s taken Hollywood 43 years to take Jaws and films like it seriously, accepting that they might be worthy of Oscars.
The telecast of the Academy Awards is losing viewers faster than a cynical mayor in a Watergate allegory loses bathers. No one tunes in anymore. Well, 26.5 million at the last count still did, but that’s a sprat of a figure compared with the number which used to watch, a real monster from the deep. Specifically, young people don’t seem interested in the ceremony, hence the suggested new category: Best Popular Picture.
Call me cynical but that sounds like a cynical move. It also sounds like a move similar to the removal of trophies and medals from children’s sport. That was a disastrous idea which has resulted in a generation growing up hopelessly uncompetitive. Transferring the “everybody gets a prize” philosophy to the film world, what would an Oscar recognising an arthouse movie’s lyrical beauty be worth if a statuette could also be claimed by blockbusters and schlockbusters, by pot-boilers and bunny-boilers, and by bodice-rippers and chainsaw massacres? Even more hideous, what if it was a Richard Curtis flick which was voted Best Popular Picture?
That said, I’m all for pretentiousness being pricked. I’m all for weird and brilliant juxtapositions. For instance, if such a gong was available to Jaws, imagine a gushing, greetin’ luvvie breaking the record for the longest and most mawkish acceptance speech and then being followed onto the stage by Spielberg’s mechanical shark? With respect to the director and his tremendous trio of actors, Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss and Robert Shaw, the shark was the star of Jaws. Well, at least until audiences got over the fear on the third or fourth viewing of the film and noticed how risibly rubbery it was, chewing on a gas canister like a cigar in the final scenes. And what a pity the shark wasn’t real and capable of hoovering up the front rows of the Oscars’ auditorium.
Jaws would definitely have claimed Best Popular Picture but I don’t think The Meg will. I felt duty-bound to lay myself before this summer’s sharksploitation biggie on one of my local multiplex’s leatherette loungers but wasn’t moved or thrilled or amused or impressed by its irony and I certainly wasn’t terrified and nor was my 11-year-old son.
If scaring us to new, knicker-wetting heights or indeed depths was The Meg’s main aim then, in the current climate, the film was always going to have a problem. Audiences these days demand instant gratification and director Jon Turteltaub admits he was under pressure to show his shark – a 75ft prehistoric megalodon – early and often. This is not pressure he’s resisted. As a consequence we quickly become inured to a succession of bodies disappearing into the giant maw, only bothering to comment once: “There goes the berk billionaire who thought it would be a great idea to disturb a hidden layer of the world’s deepest ocean trench.”
Contrast this with Jaws and Spielberg’s slow tease where his shark was kept back until later, possibly because CGI hadn’t yet been invented, but which cranked up the tension to an unbearable degree. Plus, there was a hidden layer of unbearableness to Jaws if you lived in the provinces, which in 1975 was anywhere outside London. Just because you’d read about the film didn’t mean you were about to see it. Nationwide simultaneous releases were deemed naff back then, and a pretty sure sign the movie was naff too. Jaws didn’t come to the ABC in Edinburgh’s Lothian Road for a few more weeks, by which time we were pretty delirious. Quivering wrecks, we were unable to perform a straightforward task like piercing our Kia-Oras with a straw. The desire to be frightened was almost erotic and we craved becoming the willing sacrificial victims of this never-sleeping, always-eating, doll-eyed beastie. Either that or as the cinema rocked and shrieked, we hoped our girlfriends would grab onto our arms for safety.
Thankfully, with age comes enlightenment. We should all know by now that these awe-inspiring creatures have not been put on this earth simply for our vicarious cinematic entertainment and our shark fin soup. We eat them but they don’t eat us, or at least not very often. Here’s a brilliant stat: our cows are more deadly. On average, the Daisys in British fields kill seven people a year while only six die from shark attacks globally. Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the petting farm.
And here’s a brilliant irony: the widow of Jaws author Peter Benchley wants us to stop demonising sharks. Despite her husband writing the book which begat Jaws, spreading the fear of sharks as man-eaters, Wendy Benchley is supporting the campaign by the UK charity Bite-Back urging the media to stop using terms like “monsters” and “killers”. She says: “A constant portrayal of sharks as the bad guys is hindering conservation efforts.” This might just be their #me too moment.