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The best shark movies

Let's just get this out of the way: sharks are not nearly as dangerous as Hollywood and Shark Week have made them out to be. We kill far more of them than the other way around, for one, and here's a list of 25 supremely unlikely ways to die that are all more probable than "shark attack." But come on. A shark that lightly nibbles on humans before realizing they're not turtles or seals, and then swims off to find a more proper meal, wouldn't make for much of a movie monster. You don't want an attack that results in stitches and a cool bar story. You want blood. You want screams of terror. You want a 300-tooth, metric ton prehistoric beast that will stop at nothing until it has a screaming manwich to rip to shreds and drag to the abyss before coming back for his friends. 

Hollywood has delivered, over and over again. We've got sharks in the Pacific. Sharks in the Atlantic. Sharks in (hang on while we check our notes here) grocery stores, and even the streets of Los Angeles. We even have genetically enhanced, genius sharks. Yes, really. So write your will, and dive in: these are some of the best shark movies ever made. [Warning: SPOILERS AHEAD]

Bait 3D (2012)

Bait is an Australian-Singaporean movie about people who survive a freak tidal wave only to be trapped in a partially submerged grocery store, and hunted by a pack of bloodthirsty great whites. It sounds like a special breed of made-for-TV stupid, but it's a surprisingly tense ride: the crew deals with robberies, split wires throwing sparks, being trapped on store shelves without an obvious way out, and of course, plenty of close calls with carnivore monster fish. 

Reception was lukewarm. Writing for At the Movies, an Australian publication, critics Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton rated it 3.5/5 stars (would appeal to genre fans) and 2.5/5 stars (could've invested more in the characters), respectively. A sequel, Deep Water, about a plane crashing in the Pacific Ocean, was planned for release in 2014. However, it was yanked from the schedule for being too similar to the Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disaster. Still, the first one holds up just well enough for a bowl of popcorn.

The Meg (2018)

Admittedly, this movie technically isn't about a shark at all — but still, c'mon. 

In this goofy 2018 sci fi thriller, based on Steve Alten's 1997 novel, Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, Jason Statham leads a rescue mission to the floor of the Pacific that ends up running smack into a monstrous, 75-foot Megalodon: a prehistoric, thought-to-be-extinct titan that makes great whites look like goldfish. To give you an idea of how seriously to take this movie, there's a scene in which the characters watch the beast devour a humpback whale in a single chomp, right outside their underwater research station, and another in which they immobilize it by ramming into its midsection with a submarine. A swarm of smaller, more modern sharks, attracted to its blood, then set upon it like piranhas and eat it alive. 

It's no masterpiece, in other words, but it's more than enough fun to justify a watch. "The Meg is fun, plain and simple," Forbes critic Scott Mendelson wrote. "It's a polished B movie that delivers the goods (if not the greats), and it's worth whatever your local theater charges for a weekend matinee." Is there anything more we can ask of a big-budget creature feature? Chomp away.

47 Meters Down (2017)

This British-American thriller explores the ultimate fear of anyone who's ever even watched a video of a cage dive in shark-infested waters: what if the cable snaps? (Well, at least the ultimate fear other than the sharks nudging their way between the bars). In this movie, the cable indeed snaps, and sisters Lisa and Kate quickly find themselves trapped on an ocean floor patrolled by hungry great whites, with a dwindling oxygen supply. It's a great little twist on the typical shark movie formula that doesn't push things too far, and it works. It didn't blow critics away, but the fact that this little shark flick had as much of a bite as it did was a surprise in and of itself. For Variety, Joe Leydon wrote, "Director Johannes Roberts' mostly underwater thriller is a compact and sturdily crafted B-movie that generates enough scares and suspense to qualify as — well, maybe not a pleasant surprise, but a reasonably entertaining one."

Sharknado (2013)

Sharknado simply shouldn't work. That title isn't a clever play on words — it's literally a movie about a tornado filled with sharks that throws the beasts all over greater Los Angeles, and a group of survivors who leap into their mouths with chainsaws. But you knew that already. And you probably didn't know how to feel about this movie when you saw it. On the surface, it looks like another one of those garbage can, made-for-TV midnight movies on SyFy. But this one refuses to make the same mistake others in its goofy genre do, by taking itself even slightly seriously. It knows it's absurd. You laugh at it, but it's sitting right next to you on the couch, hand in the popcorn bowl, laughing along with you. 

It went on to win over the masses as well as the critics (it has a head-turning 78% on Rotten Tomatoes) and became one of the most talked-about films of that year. Again, and we can't repeat this enough: we're discussing a movie about a tornado filled with sharks. David Hinckley said it best, for New York Daily News: "Sharknado is an hour and a half of your life that you'll never get back. And you won't want to." Even a movie that subverts expectations this hard couldn't save the lame five sequels, each increasingly subject to diminishing returns. But the 2013 original is an utterly bizarre, gloriously brainless, wonderful little gem. 

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

We'll just come right out and say it: Alzheimer's experiments involving genetically modified animals rarely end well for people in the movies. But you didn't have to wait for 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes to figure that out, any more than you need to have seen Snakes on a Plane to know that Samuel L. Jackson has little patience for being trapped in isolated, locked-down areas with hordes of killer animals that want him dead. You only need to have seen Deep Blue Sea, a silly but thoroughly fun 1999 science fiction horror flick in which genetically engineered, super-smart sharks rampage through an underwater lab. The enhanced shark brains that make Deep Blue Sea's monsters so lethal invite just as many comparisons to Jurassic Park's velociraptors as they do to the Big Bad from Jaws. Good luck getting trapped in a sea lab with these things lurking around. 

The movie was reasonably well received when it came out, but its legacy has grown with time. Writing for Wired in 2016, Brian Raftery had high praise, calling it "the greatest non-Jaws shark movie of all time," due to its "genuinely inventive" action set pieces, and "nicely rounded out, human" characters. Other publications, noting Samuel L. Jackson's unforgettable death scene and the very idea of intelligent sharks, have listed the film as one of the best shark flicks ever made. Hard to argue with that.

Jaws 2 (1978)

The Jaws movies may be the earliest available proof that capturing lightning in a bottle once doesn't mean sequels will live up to the hype. The franchise, like Jurassic Park and Terminator and Alien and countless others, got crushed under the weight of diminishing returns with the releases of joyless flops like Jaws: 3D and Jaws: The Revenge. But Jaws 2, in which the first film's Chief Brody faces off against another great white in a battle to save the lives of his stranded children and their friends, isn't half bad. It doesn't quite recapture the magic of the original, but it wasn't reasonable to expect it to in the first place. Jaws 2 is tense, well acted, occasionally funny, well-paced, and jam-packed with all the killer shark action fans of the original had come to expect. There's a scene in which the shark leaps out of the water and literally brings down a helicopter, sending propeller shards through the sails of the stranded boats, and there's another where we get to revisit Chief Brody's habit of killing sharks by jamming explosives in their mouths. What more could you want?

The Reef (2010)

Unsurprisingly, Australia gets two movies on this list. Who else would you trust to be an authority on the existential danger of nature? The Reef follows a group of friends whose sailboat capsizes en route to Indonesia. Naturally, a great white shark catches wind of this and decides to swim in to see if it can't grab some lunch. One of the most notable, and successful, aspects of the movie is that it used actual footage of sharks, as opposed to lifeless animatronics or cringe-worthy CGI. Overall, though, the movie works because it knows exactly what it is, and what the limitations of the genre are, and doesn't try to live or entertain beyond its means. It has a tight script with no fat to trim, and there's not a damn thing wrong with that. "Considering what most low-budget shark flicks look like," wrote FEARNet's Scott Weinberg, "The Reef is a welcome sight indeed."

Open Water (2003)

Unlike a lot of other movies on this list, Open Water doesn't revel in gleeful, over-the-top absurdity. This is a gritty, tense, terrifying thriller that's loosely based on the story of Tom and Eileen Lonergan, married scuba divers who were accidentally left behind by their dive group near the Great Barrier Reef and never seen again. Since little is known about what happened to the actual Lonergans, Open Water had to use its imagination to tell the story of fictional protagonists Daniel Kinter and Susan Watkins. Of course, sharks may have been the most obvious peril you could introduce to a story about people stranded at sea, but it wasn't the only thing the characters dealt with. Scenes of them starving, struggling with extreme thirst and exposure, and being tortured by mental anguish as they waited for the inevitable all add to a sense of inescapable dread. By the time the sharks swing by, it's almost a mercy. Critics heaped acclaim on the film, few of them praising it as highly as Roger Ebert: "Rarely, but sometimes, a movie can have an actual physical effect on you," he wrote in a three and a half star review for the Chicago Sun-Times. "It gets under your defenses and sidesteps the 'it's only a movie' reflex and creates a visceral feeling that might as well be real." So check this one out if you dare.

The Shallows (2016)

It's the stuff of nightmares. Imagine being completely alone, stranded on the bloating carcass of a half-eaten whale, while a great white shark prowls around with a whiff of your blood and an empty stomach. That's the situation Blake Lively finds herself in in The Shallows, an airtight, lethally crafted thriller that's the best shark flick this side of our number one pick. Roger Ebert had sadly passed before the movie was released, but for his website, Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, "Lively is superb here, giving one of those hyper-focused, action-lead performances that's as much an athletic feat as an aesthetic one." IGN's Simon Thompson wrote, "The Shallows does for surfing what The Blair Witch Project did for camping and makes Jaws look like a children's tea party... Terrifyingly good." And we're writing, simply, watch this movie if you haven't yet. It's that good. And think twice about surfing.

Jaws (1975)

We'll admit, this is hardly a surprise. But what else could've possibly topped off this list? Steven Spielberg's horror/thriller masterpiece practically invented the modern blockbuster. And unlike a lot of decades-old classics, this one still holds up. The script is well paced and endlessly quotable ("Here's to swimming with bowlegged women!"). The characters, from Roy Scheider's overwhelmed but determined Chief Brody to Murray Hamilton's incredulous sleazebag mayor, are believable and, most importantly, memorable. Quint's speech about the very real shark attack on the crew of the torpedoed USS Indianapolis in World War II is one of the most memorable scenes in movie history. 

The scares still work, too, and the practical special effects, though a bit stiff, have aged better than those in almost all of the more recent bargain-bin CGI-dependent creature features that tried and failed to recapture the magic of this 1975 classic. The fate of the skinny-dipping girl in the beginning of the movie can rival the most chilling scares in the best horror films. And we don't even have to mention that simple, unforgettable, dread-inducing theme. Dun dun. Dun dun. Dun-dun. Dun-dun. Dun dun dun-dun dun dun dun-dun. You're gonna need a bigger boat, indeed.

Shark Tale (2004)

Released in 2004, Shark Tale, an animated Dreamworks film about a fish (Will Smith) who recruits a shark to help him convince his nautical neighborhood that he'd killed a shark mob boss, might not have managed to fill the enormous shoes left open by the previous year's Finding Nemo. But it remains surprisingly rewatchable, even if its premise is rivaled in head-scratching weirdness only by Bee Movie. (Really? The mob? That's the best plot they could come up with?) 

Either way, the movie is gleefully silly and quite a bit more fun than it sounds. It also boasts an impressive ensemble cast. Will Smith is joined by Jack Black, Angelina Jolie, and Renee Zellweger, to name a few. The other two big names, though, are among the last people you'd ever imagine would to join a movie about cartoon fish, but they're the first people you'd think would be attached to a mafia flick. Robert De Niro, of all people, plays the shark mob boss, and — get this — legendary director and not-at-all-an-actor Martin Scorsese plays a pufferfish loan shark in his first-ever voice-acting role. He's not half bad. (Sopranos fans should also keep an ear out for Michael Imperioli as the mob boss' son, Frankie.)

While it's largely been forgotten today, Shark Tale was actually nominated for an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, ultimately losing to The Incredibles. But with all due respect to Pixar, their film doesn't have a single shark mobster. Not one.

Kon-Tiki (2012)

In 1947, Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl embarked across the Pacific Ocean on a primitive, single-sail wooden boat, to prove that it could be done and thereby legitimize his theory that pre-Colombian South Americans had traveled similarly to Polynesia and colonized it. The 2012 historical drama film depicting the expedition correctly shows everyone surviving the journey and living to write about it. But the crew faces numerous perils along the way, like storms and, you guessed it, some very nasty sharks. 

Like many movies based on (or, at least, inspired by) true events, a lot of what you see in Kon-Tiki is made up for dramatic purposes. The boat's parrot wasn't devoured by a shark, for example. It simply washed away in the current, according to Heyerdahl's own award-winning 1950 documentary about his expedition. But fudging the record doesn't necessarily doom historical movies, and Kon-Tiki is no exception. It's a wonderful, dream-like adventure flick with performances, visuals, and technical execution that elevate it beyond what its largely predictable plot would otherwise achieve. This is a hidden, rarely mentioned gem, so we're assuming most people haven't seen or heard of it. It's time to change that.