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The Shark Movie Matrix

A compendium of the most notable apex predators in cinema’s history, from the very mean (‘Jaws’) to the very nice (‘Shark Tale’), from the very real (‘Open Water’) to the utterly ridiculous (‘Sharknado,’ obviously)

Universal/Ringer illustration

Ever since Jaws and its absolute unit of a great white swam into theaters in the summer of 1975, moviegoers have been terrified of—but also oddly attracted to—sharks, and Hollywood has tried to capitalize on that strange mix of feelings. While shark attacks are exceptionally rare—even the author of Jaws, Peter Benchley, regrets the way his novel has portrayed one of the ocean’s apex predators—the pantheon of shark movies continues to grow, even if none of them come close to the greatness of Steven Spielberg’s breakout hit.

Shark movies are a delightfully silly subgenre—a collection of B-movies that can range between realistic horror shows (Open Water) and spectacular science-fiction clusterfucks (I’m talking about Sharknado). On rare occasions, sharks can even star in animated movies (see: Shark Tale and Finding Nemo) in which they come off like really swole, really cute water dogs.

In honor of the latest entry in the shark-movie pantheon, The Meg (out on Friday), our own Meg—Megan Schuster—and I have devised the Shark Movie Matrix: a chart highlighting the biggest shark movies in Hollywood based on the creatures’ friendliness and realism. Before we get to the matrix, we need to address a few rules:

  • We did not consider any shark-movie sequels outside of the Jaws franchise—since Jaws is the founder of the genre, deference was paid to its sequels. Yes … even to Jaws: The Revenge.
  • We widened the shark-movie scope as much as possible, but we’re not including every shark movie ever made, because nobody on Earth has watched Shark in Venice, Ghost Shark, or Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, which are all real movies.
  • We included The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl because we’re big fans of auteurist cinema

OK, now here’s the matrix:

As you can see, the Shark Movie Matrix does have a problem: Hollywood has never made a movie that both is realistic and features a friendly protagonist shark. We do have a few suggestions to fill this glaring hole: Make an orca the villain, because they’re legitimately terrifying and torture seals; consider the way the Jurassic World movies have changed the perception of velociraptors; create a bond between man and shark, which has its merits; and don’t use bull sharks—they’re actually quite scary.

Finally, using the Shark Movie Matrix as a guide, we’ve created our Shark Movie Superlatives, honoring the best, most, and scariest shark-related high jinks from the many shark movies that have captured our hearts over the years. —Miles Surrey

Ranking the Scariest Movie Sharks

1. The Meg

I know, I know—the movie isn’t even out yet. How is it possible to rank a shark no. 1 on this list when no one has seen it, and when the species it’s based on has been extinct for millions of years? Well friends, let me take this opportunity to remind you that, historically, megalodon sharks grew to be over 60 feet long, and weighed more than 50 tons. To put that in perspective, one shark expert said that a typical great white shark would only measure up to the size of the [coughs] male genitalia of the megalodon. That’s scary enough for me.

2. The smart sharks from Deep Blue Sea

The premise of Deep Blue Sea is a doozy, but its unique depiction of shark villainy puts its fish at no. 2 on this list. Instead of making the sharks larger and giving them more teeth, the filmmakers decided that the scariest thing to do to a shark is to make it smarter. The sharks in this movie start to hunt in packs, they manage to infiltrate an underwater scientific facility, and despite the fact that the humans should have had the upper hand in this scenario, they eventually manage to pick off all but two of the people at the lab. I would not want to encounter these sharks in open water.

3. The shark from Jaws

The OG terror of the sea. Though it’s been surpassed in terms of scare factor over the years by enhanced CGI, more complicated movie premises, and pure size, the shark from Jaws remains one of the scariest villains to ever hit the big screen. It may not be the king (or queen—I maintain that, given its size, this shark had to be female) of the movie ocean anymore, but it’s still a classic.

4. The stalker shark from The Shallows

If you haven’t been able to tell from the rest of this post, I am a shark enthusiast. I have defended sharks in print, discussed them exhaustively in the Ringer’s Slack, and poked holes in movies that paint them as single-minded killing machines hell-bent on eating any and all humans that cross their paths. The shark from The Shallows was the only one that almost made me change my tune. Its 90-minute cat-and-mouse game with Blake Lively’s character—all while she’s mere yards from shore—is genuinely one of the most terrifying things I have ever seen.

5. The shark from The Reef

This shark followed a group whose boat had capsized and picked the people off one by one, but there’s not much else that makes it notable.

6. Tie—The sharks from Open Water, Sharknado, 47 Meters Down, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage, Shark Night 3D

All of these movies are frightening in their own right, but they feature groups of sharks that are largely indistinguishable, so no one really stands out—think of these movies like last year’s Cavaliers roster, minus LeBron.

7. The shark from Dark Tide

It’s hard for a shark to be scary when it’s in a movie that is so stunningly bad.

8. Bruce from Finding Nemo

Bruce alternates between being friendly—and a great host, I might add—and trying to eat the fish who were his friends just minutes before. But overall he’s got a pretty great sense of humor, he’s making strides in his efforts to change the overall image of the shark, and he is trying to not eat fish anymore—and how many of us haven’t broken a diet once or twice?

9. Sharkboy from The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3-D

Not really a shark, but I, too, think it would have been dope to have been raised by sharks, so he gets a spot on the list.

10. Lenny from Shark Tale

My dear sweet Lenny is truly too pure for this world. We first meet Lenny while he’s trying to explain to his shark-mob-boss father that he’s a vegetarian (in a restaurant filled with other sharks, all of which overhear this conversation). He goes on to set Oscar, the movie’s protagonist, free when Lenny is supposed to be eating him, he purposely loses a very public fight so Oscar can maintain his reputation as the “Sharkslayer,” and he spray paints himself to look like a dolphin to trick his father and rescue another fish. Eventually, Lenny’s father learns to accept him for who he is—and what he eats—and we get a really lovely reunion. But Lenny doesn’t have a scary bone in his body, so he’s last on the list. —Megan Schuster

Weirdest Premise for a Shark Movie

There are only so many ways Hollywood has been able to milk relatively straightforward shark movies without getting a bit zany. Not that it’s a bad thing. Here are the three most absurd shark-movie premises.

1. Sharknado

I mean …

2. Deep Blue Sea

The scientists of Deep Blue Sea are using mako sharks’ brain tissue to try to cure Alzheimer’s. The genetically engineered sharks get really, really smart and really, really hungry for Samuel L. Jackson. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, but “sharks plus Alzheimer’s” isn’t a real thing—it just makes for some really good theatrics, like when a super smart mako uses the body of Stellan Skarsgard to breach the glass of the lab’s underwater facility. Because, you know, it’s smart now.

3. Shark Night 3D

The sheriff and a couple of rednecks in a Louisiana town release sharks into a lake, attached with body cameras, so that they can film the sharks eating people. They were inspired by Shark Week, you see—also, one of the townies was dating one of the college girls who gets attacked, and it’s his revenge for her dumping him. Yes, this is all true. — Surrey

Best Shark-Imposed Death

Before we talk about Quint, there are a few other amazing death scenes that must be mentioned here. The first comes to us from Jaws 3-D and the always smug, definitely-deserved-to-be-eaten Philip FitzRoyce. Mr. FitzRoyce is so thoroughly eaten that he’s literally consumed whole by the shark. Not chomped in half, not devoured in smaller bites—his entire, intact body ends up in the mouth of a shark (and the footage from inside the shark’s mouth is truly inspired).

Then there’s Samuel L. Jackson in Deep Blue Sea. The thing about Jackson’s death is that it is a genuinely affecting twist. I didn’t see the film when it first hit theaters, but even in 1999, the actor had some pedigree. So to see him give a resounding speech to rally the troops—only to be attacked mid-speech by one of the lab’s genetically modified sharks—is shocking. I gasped.

But after that initial jolt hits you, the moment is ... absurd, and kind of hilarious?

Warner Bros.

The effects just weren’t up to par—it looks like a crash test dummy in a diving suit getting tackled by a linebacker. The enduring legacy of Jackson’s Deep Blue Sea death scene is, ultimately, something of a meme. But the mechanics of that moment and a multimillion-dollar blockbuster offing its biggest star is something to behold.

And finally there’s Quint. Quint’s death is undoubtedly the most graphic on this list, and probably the longest. It takes nearly 20 seconds for the shark to fully finish him off, which may not seem like a lot, but let me tell you it is A LOT. And it’s all shown in full light, right there on the deck of his beloved boat. The first bite is the worst—the shark’s teeth puncture Quint’s abdomen like a grape and immediately all hope of survival is lost. But then it just keeps going, the shark slowly gnawing its way up Quint’s body until it finally drags him into the ocean. The shot of Quint lying half-in the shark’s mouth, screaming with blood spurting out of his mouth, has haunted me since I first watched Jaws, and will undoubtedly continue to haunt me for the rest of my days. —Schuster and Surrey

Most Badass Shark Combatant

Many characters in shark movies have killed sharks—shout-out to LL Cool J—but nobody went through a more exhausting gauntlet than Blake Lively in The Shallows. (The character ostensibly has a name, but admit it: This is just the Blake Lively Shark Movie.)

Lively gets hit with a plethora of setbacks in her quest back to shore, which is even more agonizing when you consider just how close she is to the beach and her freedom. Lively survives the initial great white attack; leaps from a rotting whale carcass onto a narrow protruding rock; stitches her injured leg; befriends a seagull and names it Steven Seagull (nice); swims through a sea of jellyfish; fights the damn shark atop a buoy; and finally gets the shark to impale itself. The thrill of The Shallows is watching Lively’s character take on every challenge presented to her and somehow craft a way out of it—her feats are more impressive, and more varied, than any other character in a shark movie.

She deserves this crown, and another vacation that’s a bit closer to land. —Surrey

Most Terrifying Real-Life Scenario

Let’s open the field with this one: The combined premises of Open Water, The Reef, and USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage all went through the most terrifying scenarios. Their common denominator is that their characters are trapped in the middle of the expansive ocean with barely anything to cling onto, and surrounded by sharks. It’s hard to think of something worse than floating in the ocean—not a speck of land in sight—as a bunch of giant predators lurk below you. And did I mention that sharks typically hunt at night, so you wouldn’t see them coming? Hell no.

Open Water gets bonus trauma points for loosely adapting the very real, very horrifying story of a couple who got left behind by a diving tour at the Great Barrier Reef. Note to divers: Check Yelp reviews. —Surrey

Best One-Liner Inspired by a Shark

This is where I would like to point out that there is a difference between “best” one-liner and “most classic” one-liner. If we were awarding “most classic” one-liner, that would go to Jaws, hands down. “You’re gonna need a bigger boat,” said by an Extremely Shook Chief Brody with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, is iconic, and it comes just after we get one of our first really good shots of the shark itself. But it’s not the “best” one-liner from a shark movie.

That award goes to Preacher (played by LL Cool J) in Deep Blue Sea. Preacher is a man of simple pleasures. He enjoys cooking, chatting with the scientists and crew of the underwater research lab, and hanging out with his sassy, back-talking parrot. Unfortunately, once the sharks get loose in the facility, that spells the end for Preacher’s feathered friend. Preacher doesn’t get much time to mourn—he is, after all, trying not to get eaten himself—but he does manage to exact some revenge. Trapped in the kitchen’s slowly heating oven with a shark circling outside, Preacher escapes, swims across the room, fires up a lighter, and, just before causing an explosion, he spits out, “You ate my bird.” What a line. What disdain. What a performance. —Schuster

Cruelest Twist

There is a key bit of exposition dumped early on in 47 Meters Down that seems inevitable to come back and bite its characters (not literally, that’s for the sharks) down the road: Switching oxygen tanks underwater can cause hallucinations. Sure enough, when Lisa (Mandy Moore) believes she’s rescuing her sister Kate (Claire Holt) from a shark bite and epically carrying her up to the surface in the third act—a sequence that includes gauging out the eye of a great white—we find out none of that has actually transpired.

In reality, Kate is dead, and Lisa is hallucinating at the bottom of the ocean as the Coast Guard comes to her rescue. Honestly, it’s pretty messed up, as the film undercuts all of Mandy Moore’s heroics for something far more morose. (I’d also imagine hallucinating underwater has some serious side effects, to say nothing of the trauma of your sister getting eaten by sharks.) Word of advice: Don’t go shark-cage diving with Matthew Modine and the local guy you grinded with at the club the night before. —Surrey

Best Shark Score

Duh, duh … duh, duh … duh, duh. I mean, really, what other option was there? This award had to go to Jaws for a couple of reasons: (1) It’s John Williams, and (2) It’s pretty much the only movie on this list with an even defendable score, let alone a good one. Last month, just before the start of Shark Week, I watched Jaws soundtracked by an orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl, and it was a chill-inducing experience. I don’t know if you can fully appreciate just how much Williams outdid himself with this score until you hear a full orchestra play those two simple notes. — Schuster

Best Shark Soundtrack

Christina Aguilera and Missy Elliott combined to remix “Car Wash” for Shark Tale, which is a mic-drop on its own—not to mention the fact that Sean Paul, Ziggy Marley, Justin Timberlake, Will Smith, Mary J. Blige, Ludacris, and the Pussycat Dolls all have songs on this album as well. Remember that tweet about how Phil Collins didn’t have to go as hard as he did on the Tarzan soundtrack? Well, the Shark Tale soundtrack is my version of that. — Schuster

The Dumbest Human Characters in the Jaws Franchise

The Jaws franchise has served as the subgenre’s pinnacle of stupid human characters making even stupider decisions—with the exception of Jaws: The Revenge, since it was the shark exacting, uh, revenge, with unironic gravitas. Let’s briefly rank the dumbest human characters of the first three Jaws movies.

5. Kay (Jaws 3-D)

A SeaWorld employee, Kay, wants to capture a great white to help publicize the park. Aside from the awful idea of capturing a shark in a Jaws movie, great whites are historically impossible to keep alive in captivity. It died, which really upset the shark’s mother.

4. Philip FitzRoyce (Jaws 3-D)

FitzRoyce—sidenote: an incredible name for a generic tertiary character—wanted to kill a great white on national TV, because nobody has a bigger hubris in man-versus-predator movies than the guy who hunts things. Anyway, as we previously covered, poor FitzRoyce was swallowed whole, which is, at least, a unique way to go.

3. Brody, Quint, and Hooper (Jaws)

These three dudes—bravely, I’ll admit, but brave people can be stupid, too!—lure the shark out into the sea with the hopes of killing it. TL;DR: They needed a bigger boat.

2. Mike Brody (Jaws 2)

In the sequel, Amity Island townsfolk still aren’t listening to Police Chief Brody when he warns of another shark terrorizing their shores—despite, you know, living through the events of the first movie. Even worse, his son, Mike, doesn’t give a crap, either!

Mike ignores his dad’s warnings about going out to sea and decides to go sailing with his buddies and his girlfriend. Uh, didn’t you live through the first movie, too? DO YOU NOT REMEMBER WHEN THE SHARK ATE SOMEONE IN FRONT OF YOU?

Horny teens will be horny teens; but, like, hang out on land instead? This was quite avoidable.

1. The Mayor (Jaws)

Despite overwhelming evidence that there’s a shark eating people in his town, the mayor of Amity Island refuses to close the beaches because he doesn’t want to hurt their booming summer economy. (Counterpoint: It’s hard to have any economic growth when your visitors are being eaten alive.) —Surrey