Jaws at 45: When Creation Goes Berserk
These days, it’s hard not to view everything through the lens of COVID-19. Steven Spielberg’s classic thriller Jaws—which turns 45 this month—is no exception. It’s an essential film, now as much as ever.
Many have pointed out the way Amity Island’s shark-denying mayor (Murray Hamilton) prioritizes capitalism over community health in a way that’s reminiscent of some politicians during the pandemic. The beaches are open, indeed. Watching the movie again, I was struck by an additional connection: like the virus, the great white shark is an example of creation gone berserk.
“I love sharks.” So says Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the oceanographer who comes to Amity after the first attack. An appreciative student of these efficient eating machines, Hooper goes so far as to describe the species as a “miracle of evolution.” In the parlance of Genesis, he declares them “good.” (For a consideration of animal pain and death before the Fall, check out this fascinating BioLogos post.)
Quint (Robert Shaw), the salty seaman who agrees to hunt and kill the shark for a hefty fee, recognizes something different about this particular creature, however. Countering Hooper, he declares it a “bad fish.” This monster is unnatural, fallen—predatory in a way that goes beyond its intended design. How else to explain what happens, early on, when a fisherman on a pier tries to hook the shark with his wife’s “holiday roast.” The behemoth takes the bait—yanking the fisherman as well as half of the pier into the water. As the man frantically swims back to safety, we notice the broken section of the pier, to which Jaws is tethered, turn around in the water. The creature isn’t content with the roast. It wants more. It’s coming back for revenge. That’s just not natural.
When nature goes berserk, it’s a jarring reminder that all of creation—not only humanity—has been damaged by the Fall. In the wake of humankind’s decision to try and go it alone, everything broke bad, with dire consequences. Tending God’s garden would become toilsome. Good relationships would become painful. A beautifully efficient creature like a great white shark would appear off the shore of a New England beach community and go bonkers.
In the wake of humankind’s decision to go it alone, everything broke bad, with dire consequences.
It becomes even clearer during the second half of Jaws that this isn’t simply a shark that stumbled into a particularly ripe feeding ground, where the mayor is willing to serve up constituents “as smörgåsbord” (to quote Hooper). For this great white, it’s personal. When Amity’s sheriff (Roy Scheider) joins Quint and Hooper aboard Quint’s boat, it’s as if the creature is toying with the three men. Even after being harpooned and hooked to three barrels—which should be impossible to pull underwater—the shark doesn’t slow down. (At one point it dives beneath the boat just to show off.) It then begins to attack the boat directly—rudely interrupting a boozy, late-night session of the men comparing scars by smashing its snout into the hull. Quint is a Captain Ahab figure, to be sure, but it’s the great white shark who seems the most obsessed in this pop variation on Moby Dick.
Director Steven Spielberg—fully coming into his filmmaking powers with this, only his second feature—peppers Jaws with visual evidence that right now, in this island community, life is not the way it’s supposed to be. When the shark’s first victim is discovered washed up on the beach, there is a shot of her mangled hand reaching out of a clump of seaweed, crabs skittering in and out of her open palm. The terror of an attack on a crowded beach is punctuated by a dismembered leg floating to shore. (There’s a later shot of another victim’s leg sinking to the bottom of the sea, a trail of blood unfurling behind it like crimson smoke.) These are all images of goodness torn apart, human design in disarray.
Which brings us back to COVID-19. Photos of overrun emergency rooms, exhausted doctors and nurses, funerals without family members, graduations without students—this, too, is not the way it’s supposed to be. In that BioLogos post, Jim Stump discusses how viruses can be good things—designed by God to keep bacteria in check. (Bacteria, it should be noted, serve a good purpose of their own.) But when a virus mutates into something new and particularly dangerous to humans, it can serve as a reminder that the universe, while created good, is woefully broken. We’re reminded that we live in the shadow of the Fall.
Of course, that’s not where the biblical story ends. The maniacally predatory virus of sin—both in the creation and in our hearts—has been miraculously met on the cross, in an act of substitution and reconciliation that will, one day, bring about the complete restoration of God’s good garden. Here, in the already but not yet, we’re a bit like Hooper and Brody tenuously paddling to shore after detonating the great white. We know that death has been defeated, but—for now—the water’s still dangerous.