Water, water everywhere, and not a thing to watch. Okay, that’s not quite right; the truth is that plenty of films feature the unforgiving sea as a major character, evil villain, or metaphor for testing the very limits of humanity. While not all water-based movies are instant classics, some, like Finding Nemo, totally are. As the search for Dory commences in theatres, and horror fans wait to see what happens in The Shallows, we’ve compiled a list of our favorite ocean-bound films. We're looking at those movies set primarily on the water's surface - the aforementioned Pixar effort would have it a little easy, otherwise. Here are our 15 Best Movies Set on the Open Water. Enjoy!
It’s probably best to get this one out of the way so we can all enjoy the rest of the list. This Kevin Costner crapfest is easily one of the worst big budget films in recent memory - out of films that aren’t Battlefield Earth anyway. In all fairness, the concept of the ice caps melting and covering all the land is reasonable. The idea that this will make people even more frightened, angry, and combative also makes sense. But the rest? Nope. Not even a little. Even Dennis Hopper couldn’t save this collection of ludicrous characters, nonsensical plotting, and the sudden fertility of Mount Everest. In the end though, Waterworld always leaps to mind when we think about water movies.
14 Ghost Ship
Watching a haunted house movie usually devolves into the audience wishing the tormented protagonists would just leave the friggin’ house already. That’s why 2002’s Ghost Ship is a pretty good premise; it takes the option of leaving completely off the table. This movie also has a very strong opening, chock full of blood and screaming. Otherwise, this one falls a little flat. The cast seems disengaged, with the exception of Dexter’s Desmond Harrington as the antagonist. The closing scene, though, is both creepy and satisfying - especially after you’ve sat through the whole film. If you like ghost movies, or ship movies, or Juliana Margulies, this one might be to your liking.
13 The Reef
This 2010 movie was almost banned in its home country of Australia as it was believed that it would hurt the tourism industry. It’s probably true that people are less likely to hang out in the open water after watching hapless boat enthusiasts terrorized (and mostly eaten) by an enormous shark with a healthy sense of territoriality. As four friends are stranded in the ocean, a great white shark stalks them. The film is based on a true story told by lone survivor Ray Bounty. In the actual event, which happened in the 1980’s, the shark in question was a tiger, rather than a great white. The Reef is particularly notable for its shark effects, which are astoundingly realistic.
12 In the Heart of the Sea
Readers might be surprised to find this film on the list, since we already mentioned Moby Dick, and because In the Heart of the Sea is considered a major box-office flop. But hey, plenty of great movies didn’t find an audience the first time around. Eschewing Melville’s novel, this film is based on the true story Melville used as inspiration for his book. The film boasts a solid cast that includes Chris Hemsworth, Cillian Murphy, Tom Holland, and Brendan Gleeson. As if that’s not awesome enough, most of the movie takes place on the high seas, bringing enough action and suspense to keep viewers thoroughly engaged. We're not sure why this one didn’t connect with theater goers, but it’s sure to find a following on digital.
11 Cast Away
Can a movie that takes place mostly on an island be considered a water movie? Sure, especially if that water is the main antagonist. Most people think of Cast Away as that movie where Tom Hanks talks to a volleyball. It is that. It’s also the movie that explores the limits of human endurance, idealized reality versus actual reality, and the strength of the human spirit to continue even when we have no idea where we’re going or where we should be. Could you survive alone on an island for four years? How attached could you become to sporting equipment with a face painted on it? Here’s hoping none of us ever have to find out.
10 All is Lost
This little-known film features a powerhouse performance by Robert Redford, one he should have won every award in the world for. This is a unique film in that it features one cast member and almost no dialogue. Rather than inventing a companion to chat with like Hanks in Cast Away, director J.C. Chandor relied on a 31-page script to bring this harrowing tale to life. Redford was nominated (but did not win) for a Golden Globe for his performance. Sound editing, the score by Alex Ebert, and Redford himself did win a few other awards for this film. If you’ve never seen it, we recommend it highly.
9 Moby Dick
While everybody knows the broad strokes of the story of Moby Dick, there has always been healthy debate over which movie version is best. From the 1926 silent film, The Sea Beast, through the more modern retellings of today, the story of the relentless captain seeking revenge against an animal is a timeless metaphor for taking things too far. The 1998 miniseries that starred Sir Patrick Stewart, Gregory Peck, Ted Levine, and Henry Thomas is a great way to experience the story, particularly if you’ve never seen another adaptation. If a whale ever takes off part of your leg, your best course of action is to just let it go.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet were already stars when they signed on to board one of the ill-fated ships of the White Star Line. But the all-star cast of Titanic also included Billy Zane, Kathy Bates, David Warner, Victor Garber, and Bill Paxton. The real stars of Titanic though, were the amazing special effects. Huge sets smashed to bits, opulent dining halls trapped underwater, and a highly dedicated band refusing to stop playing even as the ship went down—that’s what people remember most about this movie. And the love story, of course. Everybody loves a good romance, even when the ending turns out to be so sad we wonder if Nicholas Sparks didn’t secretly write it.
7 Open Water
Yet another true-life tale finds its way to our list. Open Water is a unique and terrifying low-budget horror film where water is the enemy. After being mistakenly left behind after a snorkel dive, a young couple begins to realize just how dangerous their situation is. While often referred to as a “shark movie,” Open Water focuses on fears. Fears of the dark, of being alone, of not knowing exactly where you are, and of every other creature in the sea. Jellyfish stings, useless bickering, and yeah, sharks ultimately prove to be… well, let's not spoil it for anyone who hasn’t sat down to enjoy this one yet. Avoid the sequel, though. Those people are all too stupid to live.
6 Life of Pi
The movie that won Ang Lee an Oscar for Best Director is also one of the most fantastic survival movies ever made. Can a boy really survive on a lifeboat with a tiger, an orangutan, a hyena, and a zebra? No, not all together, but the boy and his tiger are amazing to watch. Life of Pi is what reviewers call a visual feast, and with good reason. Part survival tale, part fantasy, this is an utterly enchanting story with an unexpectedly hard edge. Can faith in God save a person’s life and give them the power to commune with ferocious animals? Was it all dumb luck and a touch of know-how? It won’t matter, this film is damn enjoyable any way you cut it.
5 Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World
In some circles, this film is believed to have been utterly robbed at the Academy Awards. This film was nominated for a bunch of Oscars, and lost almost all of them to the third segment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It seemed that the Academy was waiting for the last in that fantasy series to shower it with accolades that left many other great films without a chance. Still, this high seas war movie is full of strong performances, cool action sequences, and a breakout role by Max Pirkis, who played Octavian in the first season of HBO’s Rome. Fans of open ocean movies dig this tale of adventure and strategy, even if they did feel cheated by never getting to explore the Galapagos.
4 Dead Calm
This film has tons of scares and suspense and a twisty plot that’s full of surprises. But the cast is what makes this film so utterly engrossing. Sam Neill, Nicole Kidman, and Billy Zane form a triangle of deceit, intrigue, and chicanery that may keep viewers guessing until one of them finally dies. A wealthy couple takes a sabbatical after the death of their infant child. On the water, they come across a man who claims everyone on his ship died from food poisoning. Guess what, though? He might be lying. Sadly, this film had a gripping shark sequence that was cut from the final edit. Who wouldn’t want to see Sam Neill take down a shark?
In all of film, few names conjure the sense of excitement and fear quite like Sir Alfred Hitchcock. He even manages to make one of his trademark cameos in a movie that takes place entirely on the open ocean. Lifeboat takes place during WWII, which wasn’t exactly old news as the film was released in 1944. Random people find themselves in a lifeboat after their ship is sunk by those damn Germans. Who can be trusted? Who is on “our” side? Are they really gonna cut that guy’s leg off? Why does Tallulah Bankhead still have a typewriter with her? Watching Lifeboat is well worth your time if you’ve never had the pleasure.
2 Poseidon Adventure
The 1970s were a big time for disaster movies. Special effects allowed for bigger visual thrills at a time when viewers wanted to feel like they had some power over the world they lived in. Watching war on TV regularly will do that to a populace. The 1972 classic about an overturned luxury liner shows is how badly some rich people fare at times when money and prestige mean nothing. A killer cast that includes Roddy McDowall, Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, Gene Hackman, and Leslie Neilsen will honestly keep you on the edge of your seat. One of the more impressive aspects of the original Poseidon Adventure is how much you want almost everyone to live. This movie was remade in 2005 with another strong cast. It’s not too bad. If you’re only going to see one, though, go with the original.
Just three notes of the theme music are enough to make anyone think of sharks. This summer blockbuster has been a fan fave for decades despite exhibiting almost no accurate knowledge of shark behavior. The perpetually-broken fake sharks led to the highly effective “technique” of rarely showing the film’s main villain. Robert Shaw’s on-set drunkenness led to some excellent takes (especially the USS Indianapolis story). The main shark photographers for the film, Ron and Valerie Taylor, spent the rest of their lives working toward shark conservation. Every Jaws sequel was infinitely worse than the one that came before it, and still managed to feature at least two members of the Brody family.
Those are our pics for memorable films set on the open sea. Did we miss one of your faves? Dying to tell us all about it in the comments? Please do!
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