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JAWS, 1975.

In the summer of 1975, I had just turned 13, my mecca was the Whitehall Mall in Whitehall, Penn., and one of the movies that was showing at its new duplex theatre (two screens! in one place!) was Jaws. (It opened June 20, 40 years ago this week.) It's possible that this was a formative moment for me – that Jaws was the movie that set me to loving and eventually writing about film. It's certainly true that my experience of Jaws was America's experience of it (youthquake, summer, mall), and that its insane success (about $1-billion in today's dollars) would shape the way movies were made, marketed and distributed for the foreseeable future.

But that's not why Jaws matters to me. It matters to me because I can recall, vividly, the entire experience of it: Being set free by my mother, after years of pleading, to walk with my gang of girls the two miles to the mall for the matinee. Crossing the latticed metal sidewalk of Pine Street Bridge, through whose holes I could see the Lehigh River moving far below, which nervously thrilled me, and made me want to drop something important over the side, my keys or money. Sweating down the long stretch of sun-baked road past the cemetery and the weird playground that was always deserted. Traversing the acres of mall parking lot, and finally entering the hushed, dim theatre itself. It was air-conditioned in there; neither my house nor my family's station wagon was. I can still see the posters touting the air conditioning, with their ice cubes beading alluringly.

I didn't realize that from 1965 to 1970, the number of malls in the United States had leaped from 1,500 to 12,500 (many of which housed multiple-screen theatres), transforming bored teenagers into a hotly desired moviegoing demographic, which persists to this day. I didn't know that, until this point, summer had been a dumping ground for B-movies – why go inside when it's gorgeous out? – and that the combination of air conditioning and Jaws would help change it into what it is now: the most profitable quarter of the year.

Although I didn't know the term "platform release," I knew that movies opened in New York first and only eventually made their way to me. I did not know that Jaws was the first movie to abandon the platform style to instead open wide, in 400-odd theatres across the United States all at once – presaging the 4,000-plus-screen formula in place today for films such as Avengers: Age of Ultron. I knew that Peter Benchley's novel was a bestseller that my parents' friends had read, but I didn't know that Universal had spent a then-unprecedented $2.5-million to market its film. All I knew was that I was desperate to see it.

The opening shot, of hippie teenagers passing a joint at a beach party, put me exactly where I wanted to be. Shaggy-haired boys! Girls in bandanas! Bell-bottom jeans – with patches! And the cute girl, Chrissie, who goes swimming – when she pulled off her top and wasn't wearing a bra underneath, my friends and I nudged each other, near-hysterical with excitement. We sat in the middle of a row, I remember, because at minute three – that first underwater shot of Chrissie, naked, from the shark's point of view, accompanied by the first "Dunh-duh" of John Williams's soundtrack – I remember thinking, "I can't leave, I'm pinned, I have to go where this takes me."

Although I didn't know what a budding genius the director, Steven Spielberg, was, I remember pressing myself back in my seat when the shark pulled Chrissie under and yanked her around. I remember clutching my friends' wrists at minute 14, when the little Kintner boy went out on his yellow raft. But I don't remember screaming until minute 25, when the doofus fisherman who lured the shark with a roast was swimming for his life while a slab of dock – pulled by the shark, as yet unseen – zoomed toward him.

After that, we never stopped screaming. We squealed when the yellow barrels popped up. We shrieked when a severed head floated into the hole in a ship's hull. (I later learned that Spielberg added that shot after the first test screening, because he was "greedy for one more scream." He paid for it himself, and filmed it in his editor's swimming pool, which he'd murked up with milk.) And did we ever howl at that now-iconic shot of the shark rising over Brody's (Roy Scheider) shoulder as he tossed in the chum.

I don't remember whose mom picked us up afterward, but her ears must have rung as we babbled about it at full volume all the way home. My friends and I went back the next week – the first time I'd ever paid twice for the same movie – and for the next five years, we never went into the water without one of us pretending to get tugged under.

Two years later, Star Wars came out to similar frenzy, followed over the years and decades by Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Avengers. The aggressive marketing, wide distribution, summer release dates and sequels pioneered by Jaws remain successful; to this day, the highest-grossing films of almost every year are ones released from May to August. Last weekend, Jurassic World – produced by Spielberg – shattered box office records all over again.

But there's one aspect of today's summer blockbusters that you can't blame on Jaws: their mechanized soullessness. Jurassic World illustrates it neatly. The bones of the plot are nearly identical: There's a monster out there. People on vacation are in danger, which those in authority play down. But when the monster begins to exhibit preternatural intelligence, and comes teeth first at a main character's family member, a plucky band goes out to kill it. After a chase, a showdown ensues. The monster dies. Only two of the plucky come home.

There the similarities end. Today's blockbusters are spectacles, sure, but they're all sensation, no emotion. Legions die in Jurassic World, but I didn't know who any of them were, so I didn't care. And while moviegoers may chuckle at the irony of a Jurassic World spokeswoman complaining that "consumers want bigger, louder, more teeth," in a movie that is nothing but bigger, louder and more teeth, wry chuckles are not heaving thrills.

Jaws, by contrast, is about suspense, not action. We barely see the shark until we're 80 minutes in. It's the way people talk about it – what it might do – that scares us most. And though my 13-year-old self couldn't articulate this, I also loved the spaces between the action: Brody mugging with his son at the dinner table; Quint and Hooper (Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss) comparing scars at sea; Quint's masterful speech about the sinking of the Indianapolis. I might not have realized that Quint, Brody and Hooper represented the three generations of males who were duking it out in the 1970s – the old-school manly man, the feminized family man and the scruffy rebel – but I knew they were fabulous characters.

Type "Jaws" into Netflix, and it gives you "Titles related to Jaws." These include Soul Surfer, Shark Week, World War Z, Titanic, Ted, The Fast and the Furious and Pitch Perfect. In other words, films that are nothing like Jaws, because nothing really is. Platforms and popcorn aside, Jaws remains great not because it was a blockbuster but because it was an accident – a mysterious alchemy of genius and disaster, a piece of movie magic wrought by three singular actors, two notes on a soundtrack and one rubber shark.