We all know that Steven Spielberg’s classic, ‘Jaws’ is the best shark film of all time, that’s not up for discussion. However, is there really even any other fishy films nipping at its cinematic tail fin?
Twenty years ago Director Renny Harlin’s now cult classic, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ swam into cinemas for the summer of 1999. It proved a moderate success upon its release but since then it has attracted an even larger audience over its two decades on home media, proving a worthy contender to be runner up to ‘Jaws’ in the horror sub-genre of the shark thriller. So let’s dive into the reasons as to why it’s continued to be so popular over its twenty years and look at the subsequent school of cinematic shark thrillers that we’ve (mostly) enjoyed over this time too.
The film follows a group of scientists who, in an endeavour to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, experiment on a number of Mako sharks in an isolated underwater facility. When disaster strikes and the facility floods the group must attempt to make their way to the surface whilst the sharks they experimented on are now on a ferocious rampage in the facility that previously acted as their prison. The film has a staked cast, unusual in this genre. Amongst names like Thomas Jane, Stellan Skarsgård & LL Cool J ‘Deep Blue Sea’ even managed to recruit m’f**king Samuel L. Jackson. The only thing more shocking than this A-List casting was his character’s surprise demise in one of cinemas most shocking death scenes of all time. To this day Jackson’s surprisingly swift exit, mid speech, is renowned as one of cinema’s most wild deaths and is quite possibly what the film is remembered for most. Some say it’s ridiculous but for fans of the film it’s an iconic moment and one that has been celebrated for two decades and undoubtedly will continue to be so in decades to come.
However, ‘Deep Blue Sea’ has much more going for it than just shock value. Its shark action is some of the most impressive in the genre’s history, putting animatronics and physical sets to use in a way that created an authenticity that hasn’t fully been rivaled on a blockbuster scale like this since. Thanks to this, audiences are treated to so much screen time with these demons of the deep and Harlin ensured that he got his money’s worth out of these practical effects utilising them as much as possible. In addition to this Trevor Rabin’s chilling score elevates the scale of the horror and action, ensuring that whilst the film is waves of fun it’s still equal parts terrifying, creating its own unique sound and putting it to such effective use in similar fashion to John William’s iconic score for ‘Jaws’. Thanks to this combination the film has an effortless pace, combining all out action with more tense moments of terror. As a result it torpedoes its way through its running time with nothing able to hold it back. It has countless set pieces that are equally as impressive as the last meaning audiences never have to be content and with characters larger than life it’s always a riot to see who, if anyone will evade a watery grave. With this in mind it’s easy to see why ‘Deep Blue Sea’ has enjoyed such a depth of success and is considered such a genre favourite, but what came next?
The noughties were a rather quiet decade for shark cinema, well at least for blockbuster outings on the big screen. Instead the genre had a much more pointed focus on straight to video films and TV movies, with countless titles for both forms of media. The most entertaining entry to the genre from this decade was probably Charles Robert Carner’s TV movie, ‘Red Water’. Carner’s shark thriller provides the guts and gore that can be lacking in the genre’s more realistic outings. It’s certainly one of the better shark films to debut on the small screen and for fans of the genre it is definitely worth seeking out. Whilst its VFX haven’t aged well and some of its side plots are rather cheesy its use of practical effects makes it far more watchable than those entries that rely solely on digitally created sharks. Ultimately, the fun factor it possesses has served it better in the long run compared to more critically successful entries released at a similar time.
With these more critically successful films in mind many would suggest that the biggest competition ‘Deep Blue Sea’ has for runner up spot to ‘Jaws’ is Chris Kentis’ ‘Open Water’ from 2003. Focusing more on the survival element of its two main characters who find themselves stranded at sea and less on any over the top death sequences or elaborate action it’s definitely one of the more serious entries into the genre. Nonetheless, it’s still regarded as one of the best shark films there is, spawning two sequels of its own. Whilst ‘Open Water 2: Adrift’ decides to take the series in a different direction featuring no sharks at all, the third film ‘Open Water 3: Cage Dive’ is one of the most underrated shark films there is, combining this horror sub-genre with another; found footage, and in extremely effective fashion too. However, in these two decades of shark thrillers ‘Open Water’ hasn’t aged well at all. Its home video style cinematography and lack of action is comparably dull when viewed against the more blood thirsty installments the genre has seen since. So whilst critically acclaimed, audiences have been able to sink their teeth into much more substantial entries since.
Like ‘Open Water’, 2011 Australian export ‘The Reef’ is another outing that chooses to take a more realistic approach to the genre. Although only receiving a straight to DVD release in the UK, Australian audiences were able to experience the film’s effective terror on the big screen. Whilst not categorizing as a big budget outing ‘The Reef’ feels as far from a b-movie as possible, its use of real shark footage impresses and creates a palpable tension throughout, something that can be rare in the genre’s more ridiculous outings. It’s without a doubt the most terrifying shark cinema has been since ‘Jaws’ and is deserved of much more praise. Whilst in no way connected, ‘The Reef’ feels like it could be a remake of ‘Open Water’, it certainly creates a much more involved an entertaining experience and is one of the shark genres true hidden gems.
The turn of the decade really saw a strong resurgence for shark cinema with a frenzy of medium budget blockbusters on the way and a tidal wave of b-movie titles set to be unleashed onto the world. 2011’s ‘Shark Night 3D’ was one of the decade’s first higher production value outings. With director David R. Ellis, whose previous work included ‘Snakes on a Plane’, ‘The Final Destination’ and second unit directing on ‘Deep Blue Sea’, this shark movie is like a trashy teen slasher flick, but instead of a masked killer it’s a hoard of angry sharks on the loose. All in eye-popping 3D too ‘Shark Night’ is a flick straight off the horror conveyor belt but despite its genre tropes the brisk pace and decent practical effects make it one of the most fun entries the genre has ever seen, even if it is just Final Destination with sharks – a real embodiment of the phrase “dumb, but fun”.
In 2012 Australia wanting in on this 3D action too brought us ‘Bait 3D’, a film that couldn’t be further in style and tone from its last offering, ‘The Reef’. The premise for ‘Bait’ keeps it just within the realms of reality as a Tsunami strikes resulting in the flooding of a local shopping mall, leaving helpless customers trapped inside, and you guessed it, they aren’t alone. This is one of the most playful concepts seen in a modern shark flick that’s still in some way plausible. The scripts sees some humour injected into the story which is a refreshing change but the wooden performances of its cast, painful dialogue and uneven pacing don’t help it stay afloat. When practical effects are employed instead of the ropey VFX the shark action is good (and jumpy as f**k!). This paired with the fun concept make it worth a recommendation alone but there are flaws aplenty here too that could easily capsize it for some viewers.
It’s rare for this genre to attract A-list talent but 2012’s ‘Dark Tide’ did what ‘Deep Blue Sea’ achieved over a decade earlier and managed just that, securing Halle Berry as its lead actress. Its differences to the usual cookie cutter shark film formula didn’t stop there though. Its running time is fairly lengthy compared to most, coming in at 109 mins, while 90 minutes is usually fair game for a shark thriller. It has plenty of shark action, complemented by the use of real shark footage; however it really focuses on its human characters rather than any narrative with the sharks as an immediate threat. Disaster doesn’t truly strike until the film is long into its runtime and what would usually be the focus of a film like this serves only as a finale. It’s somewhat of an enigma in the shark genre, mixing an authentic, almost documentary feeling about it with the more blockbuster appeal of the genre. However, as it doesn’t completely give itself to one or the other it has somewhat failed to break the surface of an overcrowded genre but will still really work for certain audiences.
After this cinematic seas were quiet for a few years with little for shark fans to feast on, that was other than the slew of creature features and b-movie outings such as the ‘Sharknado’ franchise. Some fans revel in their “so bad it’s good” quality, whilst others just see them as “so bad they’re bad”. Regardless of your opinion they’ve become renowned within the genre and are here to stay. Some of the most Ludacris titles include ‘Sharktopus’ ‘Ghost Shark’ & ‘Shark Exorcist’. (Did we really need 6 ‘Sharknado’ films though?).
Thankfully the big screen saw a much needed revival in quality for the genre with a school of small, mid and big budget shark thrillers swimming upstream headed for omniplexs around the world and thanks to these from 2016 to the present day shark cinema is quite possibly experiencing its strongest period to date. Blake Lively took on a ferocious Great White in Jaume Collet-Serra’s ‘The Shallows’. Proving both a critical and financial success, ‘The Shallows’ is the type of blockbuster quality this genre hadn’t seen since ‘Deep Blue Sea’ and the type fans were beginning to think was maybe never going to resurface amidst the barrage of b movies the genre was drowning in.
The following year Mandy Moore weighed in too fronting Johannes Roberts’ ’47 Meters Down’, an excellent thriller executing creative ideas by the boat load and as a result its very own sequel is on the way later this year. Also riding this wave of successful shark flicks was Jon Turteltaub’s ‘The Meg’ which saw action super star Jason Statham face off against a prehistoric shark in the showdown of the century. The reviews were more mixed for this outing but seeing a premise like this produced with such a huge budget is a feat so rare for this genre that it has to be admired. It knows its tone and runs, or swims, with it providing healthy competition for ‘Deep Blue Sea’ as the best popcorn blockbuster of the genre, also securing its very own sequel.
So with all these sequels on the way as well as some other upcoming original films, including ‘Big Shark’ from none other than ‘The Room’ director Tommy Wiseau, (oh hi shark?) the genre is in for anything but a calm outlook in the coming years, and we’ve our armbands firmly at the ready. Whilst many have come close we don’t think any shark thriller has quite conquered ‘Deep Blue Sea’ for that runner up spot. However, what these two decades has provided us with is a fantastic body of titles within this sub-genre, albeit with a wealth of awful outings too. So although the undisputed champion of the cinematic seas is, and will most likely always be ‘Jaws’ this variety of films offers fans of the genre so much more to enjoy as well and ‘Deep Blue Sea’ will forever be a shining example of this. So don’t fool yourself, it’s never safe to go back in the water…
Written by Hamish Calvert