Happy Shark Week!

Just when you thought nothing could be more relaxing than a day at the beach–Shark Week arrives. The annual Discovery Channel summer special promises to terrify and enthrall viewers with close, sometimes fatal, shark encounters–reminding us all that the beach isn’t always as tranquil as it seems.

Living in California means occasional trips to the beach. As a kid, I dove into the surf, boogie boarding and swimming out as far as I could. The water was always dark–sometimes murky, other times deep blue-green–but I didn’t mind. Now, as an adult, a deep-seated fear of sharks keeps me from wading in more than knee-deep–while, at the same time, a fascination with these awesome predators keeps me watching Shark Week every year.

So what does my fear/fascination with sharks have to do with movies? In a word, JAWS. I saw the movie as a kid and its iconic scenes stuck with me. And just like my own love and terror of sharks, the results of this classic horror film’s legacy conflict.

Cinematic Excellence

Despite the film’s troubled shoot, JAWS came together beautifully. The script delivered not just classic lines, but great characters with depth. The actors brought those characters to life with memorable performances. And, of course, who can forget John Williams‘ brilliant score? It goes without saying that his music provided half the terror of the film. Which is a good thing because Bruce the mechanical shark didn’t show up for work most days. Fortuitously, the fake shark’s inability to function properly ended up pushing director Steven Spielberg into adopting a “what-you-don’t-see-is-scarier-than-what-you-do” approach to the shark scenes. And it worked out wonderfully.

The film was a box-office smash, producing three sequels (watch JAWS 3 and 4 if you need a good laugh), theme park rides, and video games. Unfortunately, the film is also blamed for unexpected consequences for sharks.

Bad Reputation

So effective was JAWS as a horror movie that it inspired a shark hunting spree and deeply influenced cultural perceptions of these animals. The truth is that sharks of all kinds play vital roles in maintaining oceanic ecosystems–to the benefit of all life on Earth, including humans. Researchers hope to soothe the public’s fears and inspire them to protect these animals. Shark Week assists in these efforts by showcasing several documentaries on shark research (but then they also counter that goodwill by featuring a few gory attack shows…).

Anyhow, for myself, I appreciate JAWS as the masterpiece that it is, but I also appreciate sharks for the masterpieces they are. Still…you won’t catch me diving into the surf anytime soon.

Happy Shark Week!

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