Despite the ardent efforts of nature conservancy activists to rebrand them as the gentle giants of the sea, moviegoers have long been convinced that sharks are ruthless killing machines without a shred of honor or mercy. The cinematic imagination has long feared these toothy rulers of the briny deep, their bloodlust fueling Steven Spielberg’s proto-blockbuster Jaws as well as the dozens upon dozens of imitators that would offer their own tweaks on the formula to varying degrees of success. All it takes is one whiff of blood in the water, and the grisly natural programming of the animal kingdom blinks on as if on autopilot; the predator feeds on the prey, and in the shark’s natural habitat of the open ocean, humans barely stand a chance of survival.
But who’s the alpha among this league of killers? The newly released get-off-the-beach thriller The Meg touts its title leviathan as the largest to have ever graced the screen (a claim in need of a fact-check), and yet it’s got plenty of competition for the position of complete movie-shark supremacy. Using a rubric measuring physical capability against complete destruction wrought, along with such highly scientific methods as “getting distracted and watching two hours of shark attack clips on YouTube,” Vulture has constructed a food chain of the most lethal onscreen sharks (with one notable mammalian exception). From the most lowly of the low — sorry, DreamWorks — to the apex hunters, this is the official and unimpeachable order dictating who will be eaten by whom. Read on, and in the words of a wise man, may you live every week like it’s Shark Week.
Physical specs: In the bustling animated underwater metropolis of Reef City, where everything has its surface-world analogue, the shark population fills the vacuum of organized crime. Presumably while thinking long and hard about the choices leading him to this juncture, Robert De Niro provided the voice of a Great White named Don Edward Lino, a mob boss working the “Goodfellas goes Little Mermaid” vibe. Buckling under a shaky impression of his younger self, De Niro makes an imposing figure into a softie; the film’s main arc concerns a Will Smith–voiced fish learning to stop talking so much shit, but the sharks’ subplot teaches them to get along harmoniously with their neighbors and fellow ocean-dwellers. What’s the fun of a shark if it’s not tearing anyone limb from limb?
Total damage: That Reef City’s sharks dabble in gangster business would imply that they’re seriously tough customers, but the film doesn’t quite bear that out. The whole story hinges on them getting bested by Will Smith’s jiggy fish slickster, and indeed, he gets the drop on them when an enforcer’s crushed by a falling anchor. Lack of situational awareness can be the difference between life and death for sharks, and while DreamWorks’ approach gives them a chance to show their talents for song and dance, they’re at the bottom of the food chain.
Bonus points: The esteemed Peter Falk makes a brief appearance as a leopard shark who runs a different breed of gang nevertheless in cahoots with Don Lino’s. That this character is named “Don Ira Feinberg” suggests the existence of a Jewish shark Mafia, which should have instantly inspired no fewer than five spinoff films, if not a Jewish Criminal Fish Connected Universe.
Physical specs: This Blake Lively vehicle may have cleaned up at the box office, but the Great White that faces off against her is, to put it in ichthyological terms, “a loser.” The Shallows bills itself as one woman’s brave refusal to succumb to death, but it’s really the story of a shark who’s tragically bad at the basic work of being a shark. It looks impressive enough, and yet Lively succeeds in eluding it with the tactical masterstroke of … getting on a rock. For hours, the shark remains utterly powerless against a few feet of jagged, dry land — so close and yet so far.
Total damage: Her aquatic foe dispatches all rescue efforts sent Lively’s way, from Random Drunk Guy to Charming, Sun-Kissed Local Boy. Lively watches in horror as they’re massacred, unable to do anything to stop the shark from tearing them limb from limb, and yet still somehow safe from harm. A wayfaring seagull nicknamed “Steven” (get it?) even makes it out of a scrape with this same shark, adding insult to injury — defeated by a flying rat and a Gossip Girl alum? For shame.
Bonus points: As purely CGI figments go, this shark looks more realistic than the vast majority of its predecessors. Good computer imagery should be unobtrusive; a postproduction department has done their job correctly when their handiwork goes as unnoticed as the digital puppet strings making this shark move.
Physical specs: Like their animated brethren from the DreamWorks house, the sharks of Pixar’s beloved road movie want to resist their truest nature. The set piece that finds our valiant clownfish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) encountering a support group for sharks trying to shake their addiction to meat is a popular pick for best in the script, with de facto leader Bruce (a Great White with the Aussie brogue of Barry Humphries) an instant fan favorite. He’s quite a specimen, too, his titanic size ultimately proving his undoing in the chase that breaks out.
Total damage: An innocent bonk on the nose and a couple drops of blood send Bruce and his chums into a full-blown relapse, with Marlin & Co. at the top of the dinner menu. Our heroes’ mad scramble to escape with their lives lays waste to a sunken ship, but everyone still gets out unscathed. For all of his failings of self-control, Bruce doesn’t fully fall off the wagon.
Bonus points: The catchphrase “fish are friends, not food,” the Shark Anonymous group’s equivalent of the Serenity Prayer, has sturdily stood the test of time.
Physical specs: There’s nothing particularly special about the gaggle of Great Whites that terrorize unlucky sisters Mandy Moore and Claire Holt after their diving cage splits from its ship and sinks to the ocean floor. They’re ordinary animals rather than the monomaniacally possessed Moby-Dick types, not out of place on the Mexican coast or in a story primarily oriented by Mandy Moore’s epiphany that she’s gotta get back out there following a tough breakup.
Total damage: For the alleged kings of the underwater jungle, these are some pansy Great Whites. They manage to gobble up poor Claire Holt when she makes a break for it, but they spend most of the run time patiently circling Moore’s cage like a suburban dad foiled by impenetrable vacuum-sealed plastic packaging. There’s no need to settle for such easily discouraged sharks when we’ve got hulking beasts capable of biting clean through the hull of a ship.
Bonus points: This stands as one of a small number of survival films in which the audience cannot help but root for the shark. They’re light on charisma, but at least they’ve got the crowd’s support.
Physical specs: Another instance of garden-variety sharks distinguished by notable circumstances, this time having been ripped from real-life headlines. Tom and Eileen Lonergan really did get left behind by a scuba expedition and they definitely died as a consequence, it’s just that everything in between is subject to conjecture. This horror-tinged take imagines the interim days as a shark-infested nightmare for stand-ins “Daniel Kintner” and “Susan Watkins” (Daniel Travis and Blanchard Ryan) as they float defenselessly and hash out their marital issues. There must be something about shark-related peril that makes people want to stop everything and reassess their personal lives.
Total damage: The body count tops out at two, but there’s something to be said for Open Water as the rare example in which the sharks emerge triumphant over their human adversaries. A goofy writerly contrivance — the picture ends with fishermen finding a camera containing an account of the whole ordeal in the stomach of a smaller shark — enables the film to assume a posthumous vantage point and makes the stalkers the survivors.
Bonus points: These sharks have a keener sense of strategy than most organisms with their cognitive capacity, playing the long game in their pursuit of the unhappy couple. One particularly clever shark marks Susan for later, taking a little chomp out of her leg that’s small enough for her cold-numbed body not to notice and significant enough that the leak of blood serves as a beacon for attackers. They’re learning.
Physical specs: The combination is greater than the sum of its parts. That is to say: There are movies about tornadoes, and there are movies about sharks, but there’s only one movie about a tornado full of sharks, and it’s this one. The hazards of the sharknado are twofold. First, the eye of the storm tears a path of wreckage as the twister winds across sea and land. More deadly still is the radius of sharks flung outward from the heart of the cyclone, pancaking cars and careening into bystanders teeth-first. Once the sharks have fallen on land, their efficacy as killers certainly goes down, but when floodwaters create navigable canals through the streets of Los Angeles, anywhere can be a graveyard. Plus, the rain of sharks has an added shock-and-awe effect, a certain je ne shark quoi.
Total damage: The most intimately felt loss comes when an area drunk portrayed by undervalued utility player John Heard gets gnawed to bits, but most of the death rains on anonymous extras. While the film glosses over a lot of the lives torn asunder in the aftermath of this highly unnatural disaster, L.A. limps out of the film in a state that recalls post-Katrina New Orleans. The water damage alone will require years of repair and millions if not billions of tax dollars in relief, not to mention the shark corpses littering the streets like so much post-parade ticker tape.
Bonus points: Ian Ziering chainsaws his way out of a shark. That will be all.
Physical specs: In a sad footnote from military history, a Navy cruiser delivering parts for the first atomic bomb capsizes, leaving all personnel as sitting ducks for hostile fauna. The sharks making mincemeat of servicemen in this WWII-era period piece somewhat lack in distinction by virtue of having to play opposite Nicolas Cage, who portrays the embattled captain of the ship. But like every Nicolas Cage co-star, the sharks keep it professional and do their best to make it through each scene. They’re not the focus of their film, but they play their parts serviceably enough.
Total damage: The Indianapolis disaster remains the single greatest loss of life at sea in the history of the Navy, as well as one of the most lethal shark attacks in history. The numbers don’t lie: Nearly 900 perished in total, approximately 600 of them surviving the initial crash to feed the sharks.
Bonus points: Nicolas Cage is a living bonus point, and in this outing, he eludes his shark tormentors only to face betrayal by the U.S. government and the eventual scourges of dishonor and depression. The sharks take on a nearly symbolic significance in the captain’s life, an embodiment of all the death and destruction swarming around him through the war and beyond.
Deep Blue Sea
Physical specs: Genetically. Modified. Superintelligent. Sharks. What more could a person possibly want? The antagonists of Renny Harlin’s outstanding B movie are mako sharks of somewhat modest scale, but augmented with a brain-growth serum. (The reasons are as dumb as they are difficult to explain.) They’re masterminds, manipulating the humans into flooding the interconnected chambers of their facility so that they might make it out to the open water. The most fearsome shark of all isn’t the one that bites off your leg, but the one that gets in your head.
Total damage: No shark has ever earned bragging rights on par with the supersmart mako that makes a meal out of Samuel L. Jackson, though drowning a paralyzed Stellan Skarsgård ranks as a close second. But the truest sign of these sharks’ intelligence lies in their refraining from needless chaos. They have lucid aims, and know that they can achieve them more expediently by letting the humans live and do the work for them. More unsettling than a stone-cold killer shark is a plotting, scheming shark.
Bonus points: Adding to “genetically modified superintelligent sharks” might be gilding the lily, but it bears mentioning that LL Cool J also stars in this motion picture as one of the heroes standing tall against the encroaching shark threat. Regrettably, he is not permitted to wear his customary Kangol. It’s simply not practical headwear for underwater conflict.
Physical specs: Yeah, yeah, orca whales technically aren’t sharks, or even in the same family. So what if this knockoff par excellence may not be a genetic descendant of Jaws? Cinematically speaking, they share plenty of DNA. (Producer Dino de Laurentiis tasked his deputy Luciano Vincenzoni with finding “a fish tougher and more terrible than the Great White.”) A crew of researchers including a young Charlotte Rampling, Richard Harris, and Robert Carradine unwittingly spear a pregnant orca and give her an inadvertent C-section, incurring the wrath of her hulking mate. As he goes on a bloody spree of vengeance, he puts the “killer” back in “killer whale.”
Total damage: The grieving orca racks up a respectable kill count in its rampage, sending no fewer than a dozen seamen to a watery grave. Beyond that, he also destroys the local whaling village’s fuel lines as part of a suspiciously concerted effort to lure them out to sea, not to mention the handful of seafaring vessels he sinks through sheer force of will. The orca makes the shark from The Shallows look like a schoolchild.
Bonus points: In a scene at once majestic, terrifying, and unintentionally hilarious, the orca delivers an earsplitting screech when it discovers the rotting corpse of its lover. It’s the closest that the species can get to falling on their knees, raising their fists skyward, and screaming “NO!”
Physical specs: Clocking in at a whopping 25 feet, this smiling sonofabitch set the mold from which the menagerie of swimming menaces would later be cast. From behind row upon row of razor-sharp teeth, this Great White laughs at the puny dive cages that protected Mandy Moore. It’s an icon, every bit as feared as Darth Vader or Freddy Krueger, perhaps more so because of its unknowability. There’s a frosty indifference to its wanton carnage, as if the creature knows only rage.
Total damage: All together now — “You’re gonna need a bigger boat!” The jaws of Jaws tear through one ship after the other as if they’re made of crepe paper, but that’s nothing compared to the human toll. There’s sexy, doomed Chrissie Watkins (stuntwoman turned actress Susan Backlinie) bobbing in the crosshairs of her killer, a few unlucky snacked-upon boaters, and our man Quint (Robert Shaw). Oh, c’mon, it’s not a spoiler if the movie’s over 40 years old!
Bonus points: Where to start? That theme, that poster, the dizzying chaos of the mass exodus out of the water, the look of utter inhumanity in the eye of the monster, and about a hundred other little reasons.
Physical specs: Now we’re getting to the big leagues. The title refers to the megalodon, a prehistoric species of shark thought to be extinct. What this movie supposes is … it isn’t? A submarine burrows through the layer of frozen gas previously assumed to be the ocean floor, allowing 90 supremely pissed-off feet of megalodon to gain passage to the surface world. For scale, the Meg would still have a considerable advantage on a Jaws triple the size. Its bite has a wide enough circumference to completely cover a polymer observation deck, and it can get around the diver-cage problem by swallowing the entire thing whole. Its only enemy? Jason Statham.
Total damage: In addition to a crowded beach’s worth of Chinese vacationers, the megalodon ends up eating most of the cast. To wit: late-aughts NBC mainstays Rainn Wilson and Masi Oka, Lady Dynamite sweetheart Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, reliable character actor Robert Taylor, and international star Winston Chao. It also lays waste to a research facility we’re informed was very expensive, crushes a few nuclear submarines, and very nearly devours a fancy little puppy. Fortunately, for all of us, the dog lives to tell the tale.
Bonus points: The megalodon’s savagery runs so deep that it’ll eat its own kind without batting an exercise-ball-sized eye. Just when the crew thinks they’ve saved their bacon, the megalodon they conquered gets slurped up by the pinnacle of its species. Peerless, the Meg can only find food large enough to subsist on in the weaklings of its brood.
Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus
Physical specs: Mega Shark is the Meg without limits. The script indicates that the former half in this clash of the titans is also a megalodon, but it possesses superpowers beyond any biological explanation. Mega Shark can propel itself thousands of feet in the air to sink its teeth into aircraft, it’s impervious to torpedoes, and it can snap submarines clean in half like pretzel rods. Mega Shark has only hatred in its heart.
Total damage: The epochal showdown between Mega Shark and his many-tentacled rival results in plenty of collateral damage, and as it must, it ultimately claims both of their lives. Before they sink to the great beyond as equals, they sink three destroyers, rip the Golden Gate Bridge from its foundations, and raze a big swath of historically monster-friendly Tokyo.
Bonus points: The production values are heroically poor — that is, Plan 9 From Outer Space poor; “Sharknado was actually pretty well-produced” poor; “Lorenzo Lamas has to do the best he can with what he’s given” poor. Perhaps there’s something apropos about the jerky, unnatural computer-animation that brings Mega Shark to life. Too pure and too mighty, he could never be of this world.