The 10 Best Shark Movies of All Time

Let’s not fool ourselves: There’s only one truly great film with a killer shark at its center.

The 10 Best Shark Movies of All Time
Photo: Dimension Films

Let’s not fool ourselves: There’s only one truly great film with a killer shark at its center. And that’s not likely to change anytime soon, or until we see a film about Katy Perry’s Super Bowl XLIX halftime performance, or one about those mysterious sharks that live inside that active underwater volcano in the Solomon Islands (and that are being investigated by robots!). This week marks the release of 47 Meters Down, the story of two sisters (played by Mandy Moore and Claire Holt) who get into a shark cage off the coast of a Mexican beach and subsequently find themselves having to contemplate if swimming toward a limited-edition vinyl copy of Radiohead’s The Bends is worth it if it means avoiding being eaten alive by a school of sharks. [Editor’s Note: The bends, also known as divers’ disease, is a condition that occurs in scuba divers or at high altitude when dissolved gasses come out of solution in bubbles and can affect any body area, including the heart and brain. Also, Radiohead’s album is pretty great.] Before catching up with the adventures of these two white girls who put way too much trust in two hot Mexican dudes and shark-watcher extraordinaire Matthew Modine, join us in revisiting some of the more impressive appearances in cinematic history. Alexa Camp

10. Oceans (2009)

Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud believe that our ocean is home to a galaxy of its own, and so the strange poetry of Oceans is such that larva suggests asteroids and crustacean eggs are like planets. So the documentary takes us where we can’t go, recording dolphin and whales leaping, sharks preying, and a slug known as a Spanish dancer and a blanket octopus living up to their colorful namesakes. This may sound like overly documented stuff, but the filmmakers are shrewd craftsmen: Beyond capturing the hypnotic rage of the sea in ways unseen since David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, they exhibit a tantalizingly canny gift for montage, evoking an Escher painting through the beautiful juxtaposition of birds diving into the sea like torpedoes with fish circling each other in perfectly prismatic, stormy fashion. Ed Gonzalez

9. Shark Night 3D (2011)

There are relatable heroes and villains in Shark Night 3D and some real pre- and post-shark attack chills, like the sight of the choppy surf after a body disappears from view. David Ellis does a good job of setting up and then dialing down the threat his CGI monsters pose, but more impressive may be the sincere attempts at making the characters fully realized. The story’s college kids evolve from horny airhead dudes, led by uptight book worm Nick (Dustin Milligan) and cagey bimbo girls like Beth (Katherine McPhee), into characters that actually consider what’s happening to them while it’s still happening. Simon Abrams

8. Finding Nemo (2003)

Pixar films are marked by a deep sense of humanism, and Finding Nemo represents the pristine iteration of that motif. It plumbs the feelings of hope and loss that personify the characters’ struggles and interactions in the most benign ways and through an unending list of charms. The film abounds in unforgettable bits and characters, and among the most memorable is a trio of sharks—great white Bruce (voiced by Barry Humphries) and his two sidekicks, Anchor (Eric Bana), a hammerhead, and Chum (Bruce Spence), a mako—attempting to reform their carnivorous ways. Bruce’s fight to stick to a 12-step program is admittedly a dubious bit of anthropomorphisation, because fish, despite what Bruce would like to believe, are food for the ocean’s predators, but this great white’s struggle to kick his addiction yields the film’s most memorable set piece: a life-or-death chase that has Marlin (Albert Brooks) trying to escape from Bruce’s hungry choppers. Ted Pigeon

7. Deep Blue Sea (1999)

“Carter Blake rubs the body of a shark back and forth with his bare hand(s), as if the surface were smooth (as that of a dolphin). In fact, shark scales are quite rough, and this kind of petting could cause the hand to bleed. At any rate, Carter would not be able to pet the shark with as gentle a motion as he was in the movie.” Those words, written no doubt by a straight man who’s never imagined what it would be like to have Thomas Jane’s hands all over his body, constitute just one of 14 factual errors listed on the iMDB trivia page for Deep Blue Sea, a film about sharks that take vengeance against a group of humans for experimenting on them. Renny Harlin’s film makes no concerted attempt to explain the medical science behind implanting human cells into the forebrains of the sharks so as to find a cure for degenerative brain diseases, and it’s all the better for it. Junk food for the soul, the film earns its place on this list solely for Samuel L. Jackson’s iconic death, but the special place it carved into more than just my own heart belongs only to LL Cool J’s scenery-chewing performance as Preacher, who after saving the day (and Jane’s ass) announces with a sigh of relief: “Take me back to the ghetto.” Camp

6. Open Water (2003)

The night before Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan’s (Blanchard Ryan) disastrous scuba-diving excursion, an intimate, horned-up conversation suggests a couple that’s built a relationship out of making compromises. A day later, a shark takes a small bite out of Susan’s leg and the couple begins to sort through whatever baggage they’ve left unresolved between them. Their bickering may sound authentic, but considering that there’s no couch in sight for Daniel to sleep on after they’re done blaming each other, it doesn’t exactly fit the mood. For anyone who’s watched Jaws one too many times or, like Daniel, lives for shark specials on the Discovery Channel, the relatively pint-sized fish that gather around the couple aren’t exactly scary. Luckily, though, the sea (not to mention a revealing thunderstorm) is sinister enough, and while Open Water may look like shit, the crummy DV used for the film has a way of degrading the surface of the moving water so that it becomes difficult to distinguish the peak of a small wave from the fin of a shark. When Susan wonders if it’s scarier seeing or not seeing the sharks around them, she may as well be appealing to the audience. You decide. Ed Gonzalez

5. Bait (2012)

Kimble Rendall’s film abounds in commercial-slick aesthetic textures redolent of Joseph Kahn’s work. The opening, at least until the shark’s first appearance, is striking for its elegant sense of disquiet as two lovebirds lightly tease other against the hyper-saturated Australian coastal landscape. After a freak (and shoddy-looking) tsunami floods a local supermarket, a motley group of shoppers, employees, and burglars are trapped inside. What follows is essentially one long and goofily effective joke that positions the great white shark that naturally arrives on the scene as a very hungry shopper swimming through the supermarket’s flooded aisles waiting to sink its teeth into the most readily available slab of human meat. Gonzalez

4. The Reef (2010)

Best comment on this film’s YouTube trailer page: “More people get killed each year by toasters. They should make a movie about that instead of fear mongering—we’ve already almost killed them all—mainly so a bunch of cunts can put their fins in soup and celebrate being upper class.” CassioKoh’s rage isn’t uncommon among those who have beefs with the movies for mispresenting the threat that sharks pose to humans. But that’s precisely why Andrew Traucki’s unpretentiously mounted The Reef is so refreshing. After a small sailboat capsizes along the Great Barrier Reef, the majority of those on board make the (probably good) decision to swim toward a not-so-nearby island. This is a low-stakes drama that’s impressively acted and will only feel pointless to those who expect far pulpier returns from their shark movies, as The Reef is committed only to underlining the truth that we aren’t prey to the great white shark, and that when it does attack us it’s only out of mundane curiosity. Gonzalez

3. Blue Water, White Death (1971)

Peter Gimbel and James Lipscomb’s Blue Water, White Death is a literal and figurative trip, and without it there’s a chance Jaws wouldn’t exist. Aboard a 150-foot steamship, underwater photojournalist Gimble, who was the first to photograph the sunken Andrea Doria, and above-water cameraman Lipscomb set out in search of an elusive great white shark, which they’re only too happy to dub the world’s most dangerous predator. Off the waters of South Africa, Mozambique, Ceylon, and Australia, the crew—which includes shark experts Ron and Valerie Taylor and folksinger Tom Chapin, whose songs surreally soundtrack the dullest stretches of the trip—go about their hunting. It’s a waiting game for the better part of the film, which is at its most eerie for the sight of the skin being peeled back off of one of the whales that are used as shark bait. For the crew, it’s worth the wait to finally encounter and photograph a great white shark, but the film arguably peaks with the site of sharks taking turns tearing flesh from a whale’s carcass, swimming through the blood-soaked water in an image that comes to hauntingly rhyme with the film’s psychedelic title sequence. Gonzalez

2. The Shallows (2016)

What makes The Shallows churn so forcefully for so long is Jaume Collet-Serra’s visual acrobatics, which seem almost to flare up in synchronicity with his heroine’s spikes in energy and cunning. When Nancy’s (Blake Lively) first attacked, the scene is covered in one slow-motion underwater shot in which the frame gradually fills with the red of her spilling blood, seamlessly coinciding with her soundless pang of agony. Later, when she decides to cross a field of jellyfish to deter her predator, the glowing specimens impart a vibrancy that’s gleefully unreal. This all comes to a logical conclusion in the closing credit sequence, where Collet-Serra treats the ocean’s surface, viewed from above, like a bath of swirling tie-dye. More than that of a babe surmounting a hungry shark, the real story of a conquering here is between the director and his chosen setting. Thank Collet-Serra’s state-of-the-art camera, as it’s both his weapon and his trusty sidekick. Carson Lund

1. Jaws (1975)

The shark, that unyielding colossus, looks rather fake when we finally get a good look at him, which works entirely in the film’s favor. It’s effectively been built up as an object of myth and obsession for the first half of the film, so it would be a crushing disappointment if it looked “real,” something most contemporary monster movies, in their reliance on generic CG cartoons, seem to sadly fail to comprehend. The shark in Jaws is the shark of our collective worst nightmares, almost otherworldly in its enormity and texture. It’s also a great big phallic joke, the agent of the blowhard Quint’s (Robert Shaw) destruction. The shark can mean anything you want it to mean, or nothing, and that uncertainty epitomizes this movie’s lasting appeal. Jaws is the pop masterpiece as happy accident—a parody of America’s can-do spirit that’s also, by the end, a celebration of it. Chuck Bowen

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