Shark Movies: History and Top Films

Films About Undersea Predators

American actor Roy Scheider on the set of Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg.
American actor Roy Scheider on the set of Jaws, directed by Steven Spielberg.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis / Getty Images 

A shark movie is any film that centers on one or more sharks as a primary antagonist and often pits humans against undersea predators in a battle for survival. Though most typically in the horror movie genre, shark movies have also been marketed as dramas and comedies. Shark movies have proved to be popular at the box office ever since advancements in special effects allowed realistic-looking sharks to be depicted on screen.

Did You Know?

After Jaws, the highest-grossing shark attack movie of all time is 2018's The Meg, which grossed $530 million worldwide.

Origins of Shark Movies

Without a doubt, the most famous shark movie is Steven Spielberg's 1975 blockbuster Jaws. Jaws was the first "summer blockbuster" and soon after its release it became the highest-grossing movie of all time. Along with its thrilling shark action, Jaws also features an iconic Oscar and Grammy-winning score by John Williams.

While Jaws is certainly the most famous example of a shark movie and proved that a horror shark movie could be a box office hit (and thus spawned many imitators), there are several shark movies that predate Jaws.

Though not always involving sharks, "undersea terror" movies were popular drive-in fare in the 1950s and 1960s. In particular, B-movie king Roger Corman made several, including the first movie he produced, 1954's Monster from the Ocean Floor and 1957's Attack of the Crab.

The most notable pre-Jaws shark movies are 1936's White Death, 1956's The Sharkfighters, and 1969's Shark! There were also several notable documentaries about sharks, including Blue Water, White Death (1971).

Jaws was followed by three sequels: Jaws 2 (1978), Jaws 3-D (1983), and Jaws: The Revenge (1987), as well as a number of obvious imitators, such as 1976's Mako: The Jaws of Death, 1977's Orca (about a whale, not a shark), and 1981's Great White (which was so similar to Jaws that U.S. courts blocked the film from U.S. distribution because of accusations of plagiarism). In the early 2000s, the genre took a kitschy turn when digital VFX made creating sharks cheaper and also allowed filmmakers to design just about any undersea terror that they could dream up. These films included films like Jersey Shore Shark Attack (2012) and the Sharknado series (2013-2018)

In the wake of the box office success of The Shallows (2016), 47 Meters Down (2017), and The Meg (2018), Hollywood is taking another chance at more serious killer shark movies.

Top Shark Movies

In addition to Jaws, the following list contains a selection of notable shark movies.

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Stellan Skarsgård in Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Stellan Skarsgård in Deep Blue Sea (1999). Warner Bros.

Deep Blue Sea is one of the first shark films to embrace absurd comedic elements, depicting a team of scientists and staff of an underwater lab (including Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Rapaport, LL Cool JJ, and Saffron Burrows) who are attacked by a group of sharks that have been genetically modified. Though the movie features a number of bloody kills, it also leans into campy humor. A direct-to-video sequel was released in 2018.

Open Water (2004)

Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis in Open Water (2003)
Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis in Open Water (2003). Lions Gate Home Entertainment 

Though most shark movies are created by Hollywood studios because of the expense of special effects, Open Water was one of the first shark films released to theaters that was created by a smaller studio, Lions Gate. Based on a true story, the very low-budget Open Water depicts two scuba divers who are accidentally stranded by a charter boat at the Great Barrier Reef and are soon surrounded by sharks.

The Reef (2010)

Zoe Naylor in The Reef (2010)
Zoe Naylor in The Reef (2010). Image Entertainment

The Reef is an Australian production about a group of people who are shipwrecked and are stalked by a great white shark as they try to figure out how to survive on a sinking ship. Notably, all the shark footage in the film is of actual sharks. 

Sharknado (2013)

Ian Ziering, Jason Simmons, and Cassandra Scerbo in Sharknado (2013)
Ian Ziering, Jason Simmons, and Cassandra Scerbo in Sharknado (2013). Syfy / © 2013 Syfy Media, LLC

In July 2013, the SyFy channel debuted Sharknado, a comedic disaster film with the ridiculous premise of sharks being launched in the air via waterspouts and attacking people on land. Audiences bought into the joke and the movie became something of a cultural phenomenon. SyFy aired four Sharknado sequels from 2014 to 2018 with an increasing number of B-and-C-list celebrity cameos and absurd situations. While plenty of comedic shark movies exist, few have been as successful with audiences as Sharknado.

The Shallows (2016)

Blake Lively in The Shallows (2016)
Blake Lively in The Shallows (2016). Columbia Pictures

The Shallows leans into the psychological aspects of the fear of sharks and survival as a lone surfer (Blake Lively) is trapped between a shark and the safety of land in a remote area. This low-budget thriller received positive reviews and ended up becoming a significant box office success.