Jaws at 40: Steven Spielberg's shark tale remains an all-time classic

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Jun 19, 2015, 3:22 PM EDT

Forty years ago, 1975 brought the arrival of a number of sci-fi, horror and fantasy films that made an impact on their genres -- some good, some not so good, but all interesting and all remembered even to this day. We continue our look back at each of those films on the anniversary of its release and where it stands four decades later with this confirmed masterpiece ...

Title: Jaws

Release date: June 20, 1975

Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary

Director: Steven Spielberg

Plot: A series of horrific attacks by a great white shark strikes the beach community of Amity Island, threatening not just its inhabitants but the town's tourism-based economy. When more killings occur after the beaches are left open as demanded by town officials, police chief Martin Brody (Scheider) hires an eccentric fisherman named Quint (Shaw) to catch the shark, with Brody and marine biologist Hooper (Dreyfuss) accompanying him on the open sea.

Credit: Universal Pictures 

Why it's significant: Where do we begin? Jaws is a landmark in movie history for several reasons. For starters, it launched the feature film career of one of the greatest directors of all time. After a successful career in TV and one modest feature before this (The Sugarland Express), Steven Spielberg battled every possible obstacle imaginable to make a film that at several points didn't seem destined to reach the screen. He even used those problems to his advantage, most notably in downplaying the actual appearance of the production's constantly malfunctioning mechanical shark and creating more tension and dread by keeping it largely offscreen. The result was a movie that established him as a fantastic new director, which film history has borne out.

On the larger scale, Jaws changed the way movies were marketed and distributed for all time by becoming the first "summer blockbuster." The movie was released in nearly 500 theaters simultaneously (a wide release at that time), accompanied by a national TV ad campaign -- both unprecedented in Hollywood, which up until then preferred to roll out movies market by market. That push made Jaws into not just a must-see movie, but an "event" -- a film that transcended simple moviegoing and entered the cultural zeitgeist (anyone around then will remember all the talk at the time about "staying out of the water" that summer).

While the 1970s are primarily known for provocative, experimental filmmaking with sociopolitical themes and gritty, often downbeat scenarios, Jaws came along and provided a pure blast of thrilling entertainment, paving the way for the ultimate summer movie, Star Wars, two years later. And until that little space opera came along, Jaws briefly reigned as the all-time box-office champ. But beyond all that, it's still one hell of a movie, with a surging, white-knuckle narrative, a superb cast and that unforgettable score. Four decades later, it's still one of the undisputed greats.

Other entries in this series: