The tagline for 1978’s Jaws 2 — the in-all-ways-inferior follow-up to what is arguably the shark horror movie of them all — was, if nothing else, catchy as can be: “Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water.” There’s something about that line that sticks in the brain and explains the allure of the killer shark genre as a whole: the worry that there really is something dangerous and unknowable under the surface, just coming to get us. It’s a primal fear, made celluloid.
No wonder, then, that there have been so many movies about killer sharks over the past few decades — with many of them successful enough that they become mini-franchises in their own right. With so many sea monsters available to watch, it might get a little confusing as to which video waters are particularly safe to visit, and which should be avoided altogether. That’s why we’re here: to guide you towards the killer sharks you’d want to spend time with, from worst to best.
While remaining in the safety of your own sofa, of course.
When did it come out? 2023
What’s it about? As if Cocaine Bear wasn’t enough, here’s the shark version. Unlike Cocaine Bear, this one doesn’t have a true story to be loosely inspired by; instead, it’s loosely inspired by… perhaps the writers’ nightmares? The plot revolves around a new drug derived from sharks that… turns people into monsters… but an explosion at the drug lab lets the sharks loose and also unleashes chaos on the world. All delivered with some of the worst CGI anyone has seen onscreen in a long, long time.
Are there sequels? As this movie was just released this year, there are no sequels… yet.
When did it come out? 2013
What’s it about? If nothing else, we have to fully appreciate Sharknado for doing exactly what the title implies: combining sharks and a tornado to create something that is quite clearly either genius or insanity, but it’s never really quite clear which. A hurricane leads to Los Angeles being flooded by shark-infested water, and biting ensues. You’d never realized that you wanted to see a shark/helicopter grudge match before this movie, had you?
Are there sequels? Little did anyone realize when the first Sharknado was being made that it would lead to no less than five sequels, as well as three different spin-off movies. (“Lavalantula” is a great name, sure, but its sequel, 2 Lava 2 Lantula, is even better.) By the end of the series, time travel, Nazis, and parallel timelines had become part of the series. Obviously.
When did it come out? 2011
What’s it about? To fully explain what this movie is about would spoil the big twist of the whole thing, so let’s just say that there’s a lot more to what appears to be a tale of a spring break trip gone wrong than just some random shark attacks. It’s a shame, because the idea of basically pulling a “It’s like Jaws, only joking” isn’t a bad one, but… this isn’t the best execution of that pretty good idea, shall we say.
Are there sequels? Unfortunately, this was both a critical and financial failure, and also the final movie by director David R. Ellis (who also made Snakes on a Plane and two different Final Destination movies) before his death. The combination of these factors pretty much ensured that Shark Night would be a one-off occurrence.
When did it come out? 2003
What’s it about? Loosely based on a true story, Open Water has a genuinely terrifying concept at its core: a couple goes scuba diving on vacation and end up left behind when their boat forgets about them. To make things worse — and also to make sure that we’re staying on topic here — they’ve been left behind in shark-infested waters. More grounded than most of the movies on this list in terms of its treatment of sharks as horror monsters, Open Waters is also notable for actually using live sharks during production. Thankfully, no-one lost their lives (or any limbs) as a result.
Are there sequels? This is actually the first of three Open Water movies, although neither of the other two features are connected to this movie in terms of plot. In fact, Open Water 2: Adrift doesn’t even feature sharks, which is a terrible oversight.
When did it come out? 2017
What’s it about? Like to Open Water, 47 Meters Down has a pretty smart, scary idea at its core: A cage dive seems like a great idea… until the cage ends up dropped to the bottom of the ocean floor, leaving the people inside trapped, surrounded by sharks, and with a limited supply of air. It’s a fun B-movie premise, and a movie that does its best to take advantage of every opportunity provided by that premise.
Are there sequels? 47 Meters Down: Uncaged was released two years later, although none of the original cast return for it. Instead, it’s a different spin on the same formula, with different divers getting trapped by sharks.
When did it come out? 1977
What’s it about? Two things stand out about this movie. Firstly, it’s about an orca whale and not a shark — shoutout to Popverse’s Illianna Gonzalez-Soto who pushed for orca representation on this list — and, more importantly, it’s a movie where the killer sea creature is in the right. This is a movie about an orca seeking revenge on a hunting vessel for harpooning its mate and killing its unborn child in the process. If this was a human and not a whale, it’d star Liam Neeson and be re-run on basic cable several times a week with people cheering him on as they flip between channels looking for something to watch.
Are there sequels? Orca was a one-time deal, in part because (spoilers) he gets his revenge, but more because the movie was a flop when it was released in theaters.
When did it come out? 2016
What’s it about? If you liked the premise for Open Water above, good news: that’s basically the plot of The Shallows, in which Blake Lively plays a surfer who gets stranded a long way away from shore and has to survive a great white shark attack. What makes this better than Open Water? Lively’s performance, a greater sense of tension, and the presence of a friendly seagull, whom is named Steven. (Give it a minute.)
Are there sequels? The Shallows was a one-and-done; it would stretch credibility a little too far if Lively’s character somehow got stranded out in the water again. (Then again, look at some of the other movies on this list which did get sequels…)
When did it come out? 1999
What’s it about? There’s a lot to love about Deep Blue Sea, but at the center is this very simple selling point: what if these were sharks… that were genetically enhanced? There’s a Macguffin about them having been used for testing for Alzheimer’s medication, but if any movie on this list deserves to be enjoyed for its visceral thrills instead of its plot, it’s this one. Just sit back and enjoy Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, LL Cool J, and Samuel L. Jackson chew the scenery while getting increasingly more wet as the movie goes on.
Are there sequels? It took a long time, but Deep Blue Sea 2 was released 19 years after the original in 2018, with Deep Blue Sea 3 following two years later.
When did it come out? 2018
What’s it about? At the risk of sounding like Stefon, The Meg has everything: a scientific research team imperiled, a rugged hero seeking redemption for a mission gone wrong in his past, a cute kid in peril, and a 75-foot long shark looking to eat some people because it’s hungry. Add in a cast including Jason Stratham, Li Bingbing and Rainn Wilson, each of whom simultaneously fully understand the movie they’re in and also seem to be in entirely different movies from each other, and you have a cinematic masterpiece that knows exactly what you think of it, and doesn’t care.
When did it come out? 1975
What’s it about? It’s the original and, let’s be honest, still the best: Steven Spielberg’s fish-out-of-water story — yes, the pun is real — about a sheriff who doesn’t like the water dealing with an aquatic threat no-one else even believes is real remains a masterpiece of precision filmmaking, knowing exactly when to ratchet up the tension, and when to let you laugh so that the next scare will hit even harder. It really doesn’t get better than this.
Are there sequels? You better believe there are: three of them, including Jaws The Revenge, a movie that dares you to keep watching with just how dumb it really is. (It’s almost as bad as Jaws is good, which feels like quite a feat.)