The Countdown: Top Ten Movies Set at Sea

| October 11, 2016

I thought it would be difficult to come up with a list of movies set mostly at sea.  A couple of obvious ones popped right into my head, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to fill out a list of 10 that I really liked.  After some research, I was able to find a host of movies set at sea that I do really enjoy, but it made me wonder why this isn’t a more common movie setting.  Maybe these movies add a level of difficulty to the production process?  Maybe filmmakers think the only thing that could hurt someone at sea is a shark?

I don’t know, but sooner or later Hollywood is going to give me the U.S.S. Indianapolis movie I’ve always wanted.  The story of a battleship that was sunk by a German U-Boat in World War II and the survivors who were picked off by sharks, roasting in the sun, and going insane drinking sea water, ultimately letting themselves drown is a fascinating story that I want to see, so someone should get on that.


Honorable Mention: Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
Dir. Gore Verbinski
Even though the series is an embarrassment now, I really enjoyed its more playful and clever first chapter.  Depp’s take on the swashbuckling anti-hero Jack Sparrow is fantastic, but as we can see from the film’s sequels, loses all of its charm when there’s no story to back it up.  The first film had a really great structure, clear character motivations, and a sharp sense of dialogue that keeps me revisiting this one every few years.

10. Crimson Tide (1995)
Dir. Tony Scott
I didn’t realize how much Paul and Wayne loved this one until last week’s episode about Denzel Washington movies, so I imagine it will feature on their lists too, but since I just talked about it, I didn’t want to go into too much more detail here.  It’s a really great, dramatic movie from an otherwise uninteresting director in my opinion.  Denzel and Gene Hackman are terrific, and I love that the stakes are so much higher than a conventional submarine movie.

09. The Perfect Storm (2000)
Dir. Wolfgang Petersen
I’ve seen this movie several times but admittedly not in a while.  I think the performances from Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney are both awesome, I love how Clooney’s character is forced out of desperation to push himself and his crew beyond what he knows is safe, and I think the special effects creating this storm probably still really hold up today.  I’ll have to make a point of going back to rewatch this in the near future.

08. Open Water (2003)
Dir. Chris Kentis
This movie has a lot of elements I love as a playwright.  It’s a mostly singular location, there are a couple of characters, and everything’s at stake.  I remember hearing about this when it came out and not having any interest in it.  How could they possibly make a feature length movie about two people trapped at sea?  Well, it turns out, if you’re characters are good enough, and there are a variety of threats to keep them on their toes, the audience will go along with pretty much anything.  I also like the sense of hopelessness the movie creates in the end.  Too many movies feel obligated to have a happy ending, so I like the rare one that just says, “sometimes these things don’t work out like they do in movies.”

07. Down Periscope (1996)
Dir. David S. Ward
I completely forgot this movie existed even though I used to watch it all the time.  It’s good though, because now I can work to do an episode of my podcast about it.  Cough cough Quote Unquote Guilty, cough cough iTunes and Stitcher, cough cough rate and review.  The movie is about a submarine captain who wants command of his own boat but has to participate in a series of asinine war games that he’s expected to lose.  However, through his creativity and rag-tag crew of lovable misfits, he manages to outsmart his superiors and demonstrate his submariner chops.  It’s super fun.

06. Waterworld (1995)
Dir. Kevin Costner and Kevin Reynolds
I would never have considered this a guilty pleasure until I started listening to podcasts and there’s a pretty strong consensus that this is one of the worst films ever made.  I’ve always liked it, and I refuse to get bogged down by haters.  What’s not to like?  Cool post-apocalyptic ocean society, struggling to survive, plagued by gas-guzzling marauders, and haven’t set foot on land in so long it’s mythological?  That is a recipe for genius.  I don’t even like Kevin Costner, but find his loveable rogue fish-man character here to be amazing.

05. Deep Blue Sea (1999)
Dir. Renny Harlin
Another movie from my adolescence that I make no apologies for loving.  Tom Jane and L.L. Cool J working to save themselves and a bunch of scientists from genetically modified, super intelligent sharks?  Awesome.  This movie is gripping the whole way through, the movie has a credible reason for wanting to create smart sharks, and the entire cast of characters are great.

04. Life of Pi (2012)
Dir. Ang Lee
When Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated for best director for Argo, I was hoping Ang Lee would take the award for Life of Pi.  Even though the movie overall is maybe not as good as other nominees that year, including Argo, I do like that we mostly have one character isolated from every other living thing besides these surviving animals, some of whom are incredibly dangerous, but he works to keep them all alive.  It’s a compelling and unique story, but the real virtue of this is that Ang Lee has created a movie so stunningly beautiful to look at that it’s better than my own imagination.  I own it on Blu-ray just so I can watch it and look at what he’s done here.  It’s gorgeous.

03. U-571 (2000)
Dir. Richard Marvin
People like to call Matthew McConaughey’s career the last few years a McConaughsance, but they forget that he’s always made good movies.  He just makes fewer terrible ones now.  U-571 has a great premise: an American submarine crew poses as a German supply sub to take control of a German boat and secure their coded enigma machine so the U.S. can finally start to crack the German’s impenetrable communications.  Many of the allies were trying to fight the Germans on this cryptographic battlefield in many ways, but these retroactive secret agents going in and trying to capture an entire German boat is real gutsy, and that’s just the start of the movie, which is about them trying to survive long enough to get their captured enigma machine back to friendly hands without alerting the Germans who would then simply change the code and nullify everything.  Amazing movie.

02. Deepwater Horizon (2016)
Dir. Peter Berg
When I started this list, I didn’t expect this to be so high, but the more I thought about it, the harder I found it to justify the rest of these movies as better.  Deepwater Horizon has a wonderful sense of inevitability since the explosion happened only about five years ago, but what really makes this movie special is its sense of character.  There are characters in this movie that have only about a minute of screen time, but cement themselves (you’ll get that pun when you see it) in your memory.  Wahlberg’s great, Kurt Russell is always amazing, and even Kate Hudson does a terrific job with what time she has on screen.  I cannot recommend this one enough, as it is currently in the running for my top ten for the year.

01. Jaws (1975)
Dir. Steven Spielberg


Next week, Paul and Wayne will be discussing their top ten serial killer movies, which I imagine will overlap some with other lists they’ve done about psychological thrillers and horror movies, but it’s still going to be a great time, and I’m proud to weigh in in my own way here.  Go find The Countdown: Movie and TV Reviews on iTunes and most other places podcasts are found, look the guys up on facebook and twitter, and help them spread the word by giving them a positive rating and review on iTunes.


About the Author:

Joe Ketchum Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.

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