There is no term for the fear of drowning because, if there were, it would probably be “everyone has this.” There’s aquaphobia, which is pretty self-explanatory, but there’s another phobia, thalassophobia—this is the fear of deep, dark water specifically.
Sufferers of thalassophobia will feel uneasy at the thought of being a distance from land, or panic whilst far from the surface while under the water, and sometimes, though rational people they may be in any other situation, might find themselves gripped by the notion of sea creatures waiting in the murky depths below their dangling bare feet.
We’ve all sympathetically held our breaths when watching a film in which the hero, with lungs full of dead air, is fighting to get back to the surface. We’ve all tried to go to the bottom of the pool just to feel the sensation of our skulls get vice-gripped by the crushing water pressure.
And yet, same as we’ve never been invited into the sky due to our lack of physiological equipment for the task, nor do we belong down under water either. We keep going. Or James Cameron keeps going, at least; he being our liaison between human-beings and the Atlanteans and all.
Here are ten of the best aquatic movies.
10. The Frogmen (1951)
This 1951 film follows the adventures of, according to the trailer, a group of “fin-footed, goggle-eyed, beach-blasting heroes!” The Frogmen is a fun tough-guy movie in the era where it wasn’t uncommon for actors to deliver lines in that stilted obviously-reading-from-a-cue-card kind of way that’s almost synonymous with the era.
When the commander of the Navy Underwater Demolition Team dies, his replacement has to earn the respect of his crew. When the unit’s boat runs afoul of the Japanese navy, the men have to set aside the disdain for their new commander and work together.
In spite of its flaws with its casting and actors, some of the underwater photography is really stellar. And, at the time, proved far too challenging and expensive to shoot much of anything under water. Three years later the revolutionary techniques established in The Frogmen would be used for underwater sequences in The Creature from the Black Lagoon.
9. Deep Star Six (1989)
Directed by Sean S. Cunningham, creator of the Friday the 13th franchise, Deep Star Six has a team working to install a nuclear weapons storage facility on the ocean floor when they discover a massive system of caverns.
Like another entry on this list that’ll come later, the team comes into contact with a menacing extra-terrestrial life-form that has been waiting in the deep dark for eons. More horror than sci-fi, Deep Star Six is like a combination of Alien and The Thing and wears its influences pretty plainly.
Despite some of its more tired tropes, Deep Star Six features some pretty great practical effects, a tense atmosphere, and fantastic (if brief) examples of underwater camerawork.
8. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)
Wes Anderson is cited as saying he was inspired by watching Jacque Cousteau’s Explorers of the Deep series from the late 70s—and it shows. But while Cousteau was famously dead serious when it came to his studies of underwater life, adding Anderson’s trademark dry humor makes for a winning combination.
Add in brilliant camerawork, great David Bowie covers by Seu Jorge, and a cast only Anderson could assemble, and you have The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Filmed around parts of Italy and France, many of the exterior shots are breath-taking.
While it’s not a favorite among Anderson fans, The Life Aquatic shows Anderson’s growth as a filmmaker—with a much bigger budget behind him, he was able to move away from his comfort zone and into the adventure-comedy territory he’d later return to with The Darjeeling Limited and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
7. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
Based on the novel by Jules Verne, the 1954 adaptation of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea has Kirk Douglas as a master harpooner and his crew of seamen looking into why a rash of ships have been sinking—only to meet Captain Nemo (James Mason) and his high-tech (for the 1800s) submarine, the Nautilus.
An early live action film from Disney, this adaptation had a lot of budget to work with—and it shows. From some really amazing special effects including well-crafted miniatures to the interior of the Nautilus still one of the most gorgeous sets ever built, and a sequence in which our heroes march across the bottom of the sea in diving bells—it’s all really stunning and has aged impeccably, despite it being over fifty years old by the time of this writing. Come for the production design, stay for the battle with a giant squid.
6. Finding Nemo (2003)
Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres lend their voices to this beloved Disney animated film from 2003. Marlin, a clownfish, is searching for his lost son who was netted out of the sea and bound for a dentist’s office where he’ll live forevermore as living lobby décor.
Marlin, not big on that idea, begins the chase and is aided by Dory (DeGeneres), and a host of other helpful sea-bound characters. Finding Nemo, with is terrific animation and CG, really bring the ocean to life.
There are many examples of the studio showing off their prowess—namely when Dory gets a nosebleed and animators beautifully captured how blood curls and smokes in water. It is an achievement in animation and already earning its place among Disney’s classics.