It would be impossible to rank the top 100 movies in history without paying respect to Steven Spielberg’s iconic horror, Jaws (1975). The film about a great white shark terrorizing the tourist trap town of Amity Island is one of the best horror movies ever made, and holds up nearly 50 years later.
Surprisingly, despite many, many attempts to replicate Spielberg’s success, most shark movies are pretty terrible. With very few exceptions, films about the magnificent, if “misunderstood,” marine predators are campy B-movies at best. Why is that?
Why Shark Movies Suck
First thing’s first, some of you are here because you’re looking for articles about how sharks are misunderstood and shouldn’t be portrayed as killing machines in movies. You’ve already found the stats that show you’re more likely to be killed by pigs or mowing the lawn than sharks, and you were hoping to just bury an online opponent under a sea (get it, it’s a water pun, this is a shark article) of evidence.
Sadly my friend, this is not that article. This is completely about film-making and storytelling, not the representation of these beautiful, if deadly, aquatic wonders.
And if I can get on my soapbox for a second, those stats are wildly misleading. You’re around pigs and, I’m assuming, lawnmowers, significantly more than you are around sharks. Though thank you, because now I’m afraid to mow my lawn.
Sharks are large carnivores, and they do what all carnivores do. I don’t think they’re evil by any stretch of the imagination, but they need to eat meat to survive, and believe it or not, the occasional human being in the water is meat. I don’t think bull sharks are offended by being portrayed as killers in movies.
They do, however, hate Baby Shark (do do do do do), maybe go after those people.
The Real Focus
Now that I’ve gotten that out of my system, I want to talk about the real reason that sharks movies are terrible. It’s something that everything from Jaws 2 (1978) to The Shallows (2016) gets wrong, over and over, seemingly without question.
The focus of a great shark thriller should never be the shark.
Yeah, I know that sounds silly. Everyone remembers the moment in Jaws when Bruce (the name of the shark, for some reason) attacks the protagonists by leaping onto the wreckage of their ship. How can I sit here and say sharks aren’t the focus of these movies when they’re clearly the film’s biggest attraction?
Because while Jaws is 124 minutes long, the shark only has about four minutes of screen time. The real focus of Jaws, and what I believe should be the real focus of all shark movies? Should be the water.
A big scary water monster sounds terrifying on paper, but after an hour of seeing it, it just becomes another movie prop. Jump-scares and gory kills are fine, if you’re into that kind of thing, but that’s not really what makes a horror movie great. It’s the tension, not the suspense, and there is a difference, that makes these thrillers so thrilling.
The score from Jaws is arguably more iconic than the shark itself. The steady increase of tempo, dun-nun… dun-nun… dun-din-dun-din-dun, automatically gets your heart racing. As the notes come faster and faster, your eyes dart around the screen, wondering where (and who) the shark will strike.
You’re supposed to feel isolated and vulnerable out on the water. Your skin is supposed to crawl every time someone takes a dip or stands too close to the end of the boat, or god forbid, the oldest shark movie trope, someone gets in a “safe” shark cage. You’re supposed to be on edge and uncomfortable at all times.
In a good shark movie, you can put someone near water, play suspenseful music, and get chills, even if the shark never shows up. It’s cerebral chess, and that’s something that literally every other shark movie completely screws up.
If you’ve just seen the shark, and it can eat boats whole or devour Nick Fury mid-monologue, it loses a bit of the gravitas. John Krasinski, who I always call Jim Krasinski but never John Halpert, actually referenced this often during the making of “A Quiet Place.“
His producers said
Halpert Krasinski stressed that the less you see, the scarier it is. And honestly, when I read that interview, the first movie I thought of was Alien. In the early xenomorph movies, you rarely see the creepy crawly aliens. The real focus, just like with Jaws, is on the isolation. The same is even true for Predator, who is literally invisible for a huge chunk of the movie. Arnie’s commando pals are isolated in a strange jungle with an enemy they can’t see that they don’t understand.
Alien, Jaws, and Predator all came out decades ago but still hold up today. Why? Because they prioritize the psychological fear over the superficial. Instead of banking on gore for gore’s sake, they attack real fears. You can remove yourself from a glitzy horror movie by reminding yourself that monsters aren’t real, or that sharks kill fewer people than pigs mowing their lawns, but get into someone’s mind about isolation and you can bet your audience will think twice before going to the beach.