Summer is here and that means one thing: shark movies. While shark movies can very well be enjoyed all year round, it's natural during the summer months to watch a whole bunch of cheesy ones, laugh about how ridiculous they look, challenge all your friends to go night swimming and then flinch every time a piece of seaweed touches your leg. It’s pretty much a universal summertime tradition.
Since the release of Jaws (1975), no matter how cheap and campy, the viewing public flocks to them like sharks at a feeding frenzy. Some love them because they are fascinated with sharks; others love them because they are freaked out by sharks. For some, it’s a combination of both. For me, the true brilliance of shark movies is that they're effective even when they’re dumb.*
Humans believe themselves to be at the top of the food chain because we've built a civilization. Yet we tend to forget that we’re made entirely out of meat, so movies about us being devoured speaks to a primordial fear. There are tons of animals out there that can hunt us, kill us, and eat us without even breaking a sweat, yet we don’t have a steady summer stream of grizzly bear features or a whole genre of “big cats terrorize local population” films. There is the occasional massive snake movie with Jon Voight getting eaten, or a survival movie with a wolf attack scene, but none of these have the same “this time next year” track record of shark movies. The only animals that come close (and still falls short in regards of mainstream, big budget releases) are of the alligator/crocodile variety, and herein lies the key – we are not just scared of being eaten; we are scared of being outside of our environment.
If an animal like a bear wanted to eat us and we were unarmed in the woods, chances are good that we’d be eaten (or at the very least seriously maimed). But, because humans have a strange and misguided optimism, we can convince ourselves that there is a way we could ward them off, maybe even fight back. Have you ever left a supernatural horror movie and heard people talking about how they would have kicked that little girl’s ass if she came out of the TV at them? Humans love to believe that if something came at us, on a level playing field, we could hold our own. The difference with sharks is that when we are on (or more accurately in) their turf, we are thoroughly and completely out of our element.
Water creatures don’t even need to eat us. Think of the opening scene of Jaws where poor Christie meets her famous fate. She is reactive and screaming until the second the shark pulls her under the water. A mountain lion might take you down and tear into you within an inch of your life but if it left you still alive then there would be hope. If a shark decides you’re not its type and releases you thirty feet under and half a mile out, you might not get eaten but you’re out of luck.
Aside from how helpless we are in the environment of these magnificent apex predators, sharks and their movies command so much attention because they live in an environment that allows for unlimited growth. Fish and ocean mammals can get to massive sizes and they have so much space to do it in. In the 1870s a great white that measured 36 feet was caught and, sadly, killed. Another one was found later that year that was 37 feet. These are creatures of monster proportions and they’re in every ocean that we humans enjoy dipping our delectable limbs into. It’s not hard to understand why explorers of centuries past saw these fish and really truly thought they were seeing sea monsters. Which, to their credit, isn't too far off. In a reality where we have giant squids and forty-foot fish with razors for teeth who needs Lovecraft?
What I find most fascinating about the viewing audience’s steady consumption of shark movies is the often repeated, obvious solution that's continually disregarded: don’t go in the water. Not “get out of the water” but rather don’t even bother going in there in the first place. The dismissal of this solution is funny to me because yes, it's perfectly logical, but no, that’s not at all realistic. Despite being home to critters of unusual sizes and teeth-counts and having the ability to drown us, the option of staying out of the water is an impossible task for humans. I say this as an avid swimmer who spends most of her summer in the San Francisco Bay, a body of water home to eleven different species of sharks including whites and salmon sharks (the cutest of all the sharks). No matter the dangers inherent in swimming, we are going to do it because being in the ocean or bay or sound or inlet or sluice is worth the risk. This is why shark movies persist: because we humans, as a species, love the water, fear the water, and return to it.
Admittedly this has been more of an article contemplating the nature of a specific fear than discussing the movies that both feed and alleviate it so to satisfy the purists, here’s a rundown of some shark movies both old and new, of questionable and stellar quality. Start, naturally, with the origin movie Jaws. Skip Jaws 2 (1978) as it’s more of the same though it has a good nod to Orca (1977) if you’re into b-movies getting jabs in at each other. Jaws 3-D (1983) is so much fun, wildly claustrophobic, and even better if you’re watching it without any form of 3-D. Skip Jaws: The Revenge (1987) unless you’re a die-hard Michael Caine fan. For more recent movies, there’s the absurdly silly Shark in Venice (2008) starring Stephen Baldwin, the occasionally silly The Shallows (2016) (I liked it so whatever...), and the laugh riot Jersey Shore Shark Attack (2012). Plus Deep Blue Sea (1999) – not my favorite but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention it.
The late seventies/early eighties had a plethora of Jaws knock-offs like Mako: The Jaws of Death (1976), which gets credit for real shark footage and a "protect these creatures" message, and the Italian-made The Last Shark (1981). To foster a wider fear of the ocean and everything it can do to you, the 2003 thriller Open Water and 2011’s The Reef can help you out, though Open Water can probably do it better than The Reef. There’s also dozen upon dozens of cheaply made, terribly acted shark movies available all over the internet for your viewing pleasure. Just in time for summer. Tuck in, then!
*Not an opinion. Fact. Shark movies rule even when they are dumb. This excludes Sharknado though. Sharks in the water or no dice.