Although three-quarters of the planet’s surface is covered by water, the ocean might as well be another planet for all that we’re equipped to survive down there. If one ascribes to the theory of evolution, we all came from the water eons ago. If one believes that memories can be transmitted genetically, we also carry within us a distant dread of the morbid memories of those giant sharp-toothed predators that stalked and killed us in the dark, murky, salty water.
Although industrialized fishing means that humans kill far more sharks than the inverse every year, whenever a shark attacks a human, it becomes a huge news story that conjures that ancient fear of an underwater conflict where we are at the mercy of killing machines, a bloody battle that we are not equipped to win.
Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film Jaws set the bar for shark attack movies and inaugurated the era of the “summer blockbuster.” It has never been matched for its cultural impact and ability to induce terror in moviegoers. Here is a list of Jaws and several other shark movies that manage to turn living terror into cinematic horror.
Best Shark Movies
Based on the 1974 novel by Peter Benchley—which was inspired by a series of real-life shark attacks in New Jersey in 1916—Jaws follows small-town Sheriff Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), who already fears the water, as he tries to protect his town against a killer great white and a mayor who cares more about tourism dollars than he does about safety. As the shark begins picking off swimmers and growing more emboldened, Brody teams with a marine biologist (Richard Dreyfuss) and a crusty-but-tough fisherman (Robert Shaw) in a quest to slay the massive beast. Jaws, a cautionary tale of the clash between civilization and the untamed wild, had a tremendous impact on the culture and made people afraid to go near the water for decades after its release. It grossed nearly $500 million on a budget of $9 million.
Steven (Hugo Stiglitz) is an American-born businessman who visits a small Mexican fishing resort. Miguel (Andres Garcia) is a handsome lifeguard who lives at the village. Together they chase—and share—tourist women as they also hunt for a tiger shark, a breed which is smaller but much more persistent than the great white, that is savaging swimmers and destroying the local economy. Some of the women die, some return home unscathed, and only one of the two men will survive, albeit with one arm missing.
Working on a $200-million grant from a wealthy investor who seeks to cure Alzheimer’s, an unethical marine biologist in an isolated underwater research facility called Aquatica devises a way to enlarge shark brains. The underwater guinea pigs—a group of super-fast mako sharks—become so intelligent that they figure out how to escape their captivity and begin terrorizing the underwater crew, who must now team together to outsmart the sharks and rise to the surface without being killed. Deep Blue Sea inspired two sequels.
Open Water is based on the true story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, who traveled with a scuba-diving group to the Great Barrier Reef in 1998 and wound up stranded when the group’s ship left them behind after taking an inaccurate headcount. Stranded and drifting in the vast, cold sea, the couple, who are renamed Dan and Susan in the screenplay, must fight dehydration, stinging jellyfish, saltwater sickness, and the looming threat of a pack of sharks who have discovered them. Every shark in this movie is real, and the actors ended up spending 120 hours in the water with the sharks.
The Reef is based on the real-life story of Ray Boundy, who survived an incident where his boat was capsized and a tiger shark killed two of his crew mates. In The Reef, five people—including the ship’s captain, Luke—go on a sailing trip when their boat hits a reef and capsizes. The passengers decide to swim toward Turtle Island for safety, while the captain stays on the floating boat because there are sharks in the water. The four swimmers are then stalked by a great white.
Seven college students are invited by their friend Sara for a lakeside getaway at her parents’ island house in the Louisiana Gulf. While water-skiing, one of the group has his arm ripped off, which is initially interpreted as an accident. They then realize that it was no accident—he’d been bitten by a shark. What’s worse, the shark is not alone—it is one of 15 separate species who infest this water. Their task is to head on a motorboat from the island house to a nearby hospital while evading attack from the unusually aggressive group of sharks.
Soul Surfer is based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) , a young girl from Hawaii who lost her arm after being bitten by a 14-foot tiger shark while surfing and then courageously made her return to the sport. She is bitten early in the film and is rushed to a hospital, but rather than panicking and bemoaning her fate, she retains her faith in God and vows to return. Along with the support of her parents (Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt) and the leader of a local youth group (Carrie Underwood), Bethany returns to surfing and becomes champion once again.
After a group of shady animal smugglers “lose” a shark in backwoods waters only a week before the popular tourist event Gator Fest in the Louisiana bayou, the shark begins terrorizing a community whose residents are accustomed to gators rather than sharks in their waters. With time ticking down and the local economy hinging on the success of Gator Fest, the sheriff blames a local restaurant owner for the death of a resident at the hands of the swamp shark. Was the restaurant owner in cahoots with the animal smugglers, or it is a distraction?
This direct-to-video horror film by Mark Atkins revolves around Jimmy Green (Corin Nemic), who is returning to the quaint but dilapidated island town of White Sands years after a tragic accident in the hopes of reviving the local economy as well as his own personal fortunes. He plans to do so by hosting a massive Spring Break Party in the town. But just when it seems as if everything is going according to plan, an underwater earthquake opens a crack deep in an ocean crater that enables a prehistoric breed of “sand sharks”—who are able to glide as effortlessly over sand particles as they are to swim in the ocean—to attack the town and wreak havoc. Jimmy teams with a local sheriff and a marine biologist to stop the monster predators before they forever tarnish the reputation of White Sands.
This series of three films takes a very simple premise—add one head to a predatory shark for the first movie. Then add another for its sequel. For the third film, add yet another head—and then another head near its tail in the midst of the film.
- 2-Headed Shark Attack (2012) after a Semester at Sea ship is sunk by a mutant two-headed shark, the survivors escape to a deserted atoll, where they find temporary peace. But then a tsunami floods the atoll and puts them face-to-face with the double-headed death machine once more.
- 3-Headed Shark Attack (2015) a pair of marine biologists, along with a small group of researchers, research the Great Pacific garbage patch in an isolated underwater facility. But then a triple-headed great white shark slowly begins eating the facility from one end to the other, forcing the scientists and their crew to desperately plot their escape.
- 5-Headed Shark Attack (2017) off the coast of Puerto Rico, a four-headed monster shark is eating photographers, models, and surfers at a surfing competition. As police and marine biologists plot a way to capture and kill the beast, it suddenly sprouts a fifth head near its tail.
Halle Berry stars as Kate, a retired marine biologist and open-sea diver who was known as the “Shark Whisperer.” Kate is haunted by a tragic shark attack from a year earlier that killed a diver who was under her supervision. As her finances run out and the bank seeks to foreclose on her property, Kate’s ex-boyfriend lures her back to the ocean with a lucrative deal. Once she is back out on the open seas, a storm hits, knocking both Kate and the crew into the notoriously shark-infested waters near Cape Town, South Africa.
Bait is set in a coastal grocery store in Australia. A former lifeguard named Josh is working there a year after a near-fatal encounter with a great white shark. He is also forced to deal with some burdensome shoppers—his ex-girlfriend, her new boyfriend, a shifty shoplifter, and a robber who takes everyone hostage—but then a tsunami hits, trapping them all inside the flooded store with 12-foot great white sharks. A sequel to Bait that involved an oceanic plane crash was ultimately scrapped due to the screenplay’s “uncomfortable similarities” to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.
Sharknado is a series of disaster films from the TV network Syfy. The basic premise involves “sharknados”—tornados that cause giant waterspouts, which lift predatory sharks out of the ocean and into the air and sky, where the disgruntled and dislocated sharks aggressively hunt down and attack humans. According to actress Tara Reid, who appears in the first film, “It is silly, and there’s only a certain amount of barriers you could go into. You can’t take it so seriously when it’s absolutely the sharks flying in the sky. It’s so out there that it’s actually really funny.”
There are six movies in the Sharknado universe:
- Sharknado (2013) a cyclone hits Los Angeles, flooding the city with seawater—and giant sharks.
- Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014) a series of sharknados rain giant sharks down on Manhattan.
- Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No! (2015) after a sharknado engulfs Washington, DC, a series of sharknados threaten the entire East Coast.
- Sharknado: The 4th Awakens (2016) following a relatively tranquil five years in the wake the destruction of the East Coast, a rare sand sharknado attacks Las Vegas and threatens to wreak further destruction.
- Sharknado 5: Global Swarming (2017) after much of North America has been ruined, a gathering storm of sharknados threaten the entire world.
- The Last Sharknado: It’s About Time (2018) after sharknados have destroyed the planet, scientists travel back in time 66 million years to prevent the catastrophe from ever happening in the first place.
Kon Tiki recreates the real-life adventure of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl, who in 1947 wanted to prove that it was possible for people from South America to sail to Polynesia 1,500 years ago rather than the prevailing notion, which was that it was explorers from Western Europe during Columbian times who first discovered Polynesia. Along with his crew, Thor sailed the 4,300 miles from South America to Polynesia on a balsa wood raft. En route, in addition to storms, the crew runs into shark-infested waters.
Action star Dolph Lundgren stars as Clint Gray, a black-market dealer of exotic species. After a police chase near Lake Tahoe, Clint crashes his van. He is arrested, but in the fracas, no one noticed that a bull shark he’d been carrying in his van escaped and slipped into the lake. Meredith (Sara Lane), a maternal local sheriff, takes Clint’s three-year-old daughter into her care. After Clint’s parole five years later, the bull shark—who was pregnant at the time it escaped Clint’s van into Lake Tahoe—has grown, as has its two children. Working with a marine biologist, Meredith captures the sharks and also helps reunite a remorseful Clint with his daughter.
A group of scientists at a floating Antarctic research station called Oasis are forced to do battle with an ancient breed of sharks that have risen to the surface due to global warming. As the polar ice cap melts and their research station is in danger of sinking, the scientists find themselves trapped inside with their supply of food and air dwindling. Their mission is to outwit the ferocious cold-water predators or perish.
The Shallows sees medical student and surfing enthusiast Nancy, played by Blake Lively, mourning her mother’s passing and paying homage to her mom by visiting a remote beach in Baja California that her mother used to frequent while alive. Nancy gets attacked by a great white shark while surfing. She manages to make it to a small rock that is a mere 200 yards from shore, but with the tide coming in and no one around to come to save her, Nancy needs to decide if she’s going to die on that rock or take action.
47 Meters Down tells the story of sisters Lisa (Mandy Moore) and Kate (Claire Holt), who take a vacation in Mexico seeking to clear their minds. After they meet some cheerful locals who persuade them to come along in a shark-hunting expedition to view the fearsome 25-foot great white sharks that frequent the area, Lisa and Kate plunge into the ocean in a shark cage. But when the cable to the cage snaps and the sisters plummet to the ocean floor, they also lose their ability to communicate with their newfound friends on the ship. With only an hour’s worth of air left in their tanks, they must avoid panicking and devise a way to reach the surface without being attacked.
This underwater action epic centers around Naval Captain Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), who five years previously had to abandon his mission in the Mariana Trench—the deepest part of the ocean on the planet—after an unknown predator forced him to abandon both his ship and half of his crew in the deep. He lost his career and his wife—not only due to the tragedy, but because of his claims that what caused the wreck was a 70-foot megalodon, a giant shark that is thought to have been extinct for a million years. As fate would have it, a submersible containing his ex-wife onboard sinks and is stuck at the bottom of the ocean. Captain Taylor seeks to reclaim his pride—and his wife—by catching the beast that everyone claimed no longer existed.
In this sequel to 47 Meters Down, four teenage girls (Sophie Nélisse, Corinne Foxx, Brianne Tju, and Sistine Stallone) go diving in Mexico to seek a sunken Mayan city and end up trapped in underwater caves because a swarm of great white sharks is suddenly blocking the exits. With the air in their tanks rapidly running out—and stuck between drowning in a watery grave or being ripped to pieces if they try to escape—the girls must summon all their powers of survival and reasoning to find a way out of the caves alive.
More Shark Movies
- Tiger Shark (1932) This classic follows a one-handed tuna fisherman whose wife falls for the man he saved from a shark attack.
- Shark! (1969) Predating Jaws by 6 years, Shark! stars Burt Reynolds as a criminal hired to raid sunken treasure. A stuntman died on the set of this movie after being attacked by a great white.
- Night of the Sharks (1988) is an Italian action-horror film starring Treat Williams that sees David (Williams) on the run from gangsters and ultimately ending up as a shark hunter in Mexico. Contrary to the name, most of this film does not take place at night and is more of an action film than a horror movie.
- Red Water (2003) A bull shark stalking a river is the main antagonist in this made-for-TV horror movie.
- Blue Demon (2004) tells the story of what happens when genetically modified sharks escape a laboratory.
- Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus (2009) A giant shark attacks a giant octopus named Aquatic Kaiju.
- Jaws in Japan (2009) also known as Psycho Shark. Two girls on vacation are offered a place to stay in a man’s cottage, and then a shark attacks. The film has nothing to do with the Jaws franchise.
- Jersey Shore Shark Attack (2012) This horror-comedy was built around the popularity and success of the MTV reality series.
- Avalanche Sharks (2014) Snowbound sharks arrive at a ski resort to ruin the bikini contest.
- Planet of the Sharks (2016) In a future where most of the ice has melted and raised the oceans, giant sharks dominate the planet.