5. The Hunt for the Red October (1990)
In late 1984, Soviet submarine captain Mark Ramius (Sean Connery) steals the USSR’s state-of-the-art sub, Red October, and begins head toward the US with its nuclear payload. Alex Baldwin, as Jack Ryan (a character that’d be later played by Harrison Ford, Ben Affleck, and Chris Pine), is sent to intervene. The question remains whether or not Ramius is defecting from the Soviet Union or he plans to attack the United States.
Based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name and directed by John McTiernan (Die Hard, Predator), The Hunt for the Red October, is one of the last great military thrillers of its era.
It is a very tense watch as Ramius and Ryan exchange ideals over radio, watching wit for wit in a chess game between two very opposed views—all while the claustrophobia of being a few miles under water only adds to the riveting atmosphere and pressure.
4. The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
Along with The Towering Inferno, Earthquake, and Airport, The Poseidon Adventure was part of the disaster movie craze of the 1970s—if not the most memorable title from the subgenre. Featuring a young Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine, The Poseidon Adventure sees the passengers and crew struggle to escape when a storm capsizes the ship.
At its time, it was an achievement in film with hydraulic-powered machines that would shift the set around and other sets on tracks that would lower them into large tanks of water to simulating flooding. Even now The Poseidon Adventure is a nerve-wracking watch.
The tension between the survivors and mounting claustrophobia as their disorienting, upside-down surroundings fill inch by inch by cold sea water. The film has been remade several times with a high-budget rehash in 2007 starring Kurt Russell that met mixed reviews.
3. Jaws (1975)
Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Peter Benchley novel Jaws gave an entire generation of filmgoers aquaphobia. It was also the film that’s responsible for the summer blockbuster, a tradition now largely filled with super hero movies and remakes of super her movies, sadly. Still cited as one of the scariest movies of all time,
Jaws, with its perfect cast all turning in outstanding performances and a climax that’s been emulated and parodied countless times, it’s main theme is probably the most lasting aspect of Jaws.
Some younger audiences may not even know where it came from, but it wouldn’t be a trip to the pool in the summertime without somebody making their hand into the fin and giving their best impression of the ominous two-note dun-dunn, dun-dunn . . .
2. The Abyss (1989)
A team of Navy SEALS with a crew of oil rig workers ventures to the darkest depths of the ocean to recover a nuclear submarine and learns another craft was down there as well, one from another planet.
Ed Harris turns in a great performance as the grizzled Virgil “Bud” Brigman. Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, who has sadly all but disappeared from the big screen, co-stars as his wife. Together, they race against the Russian military to retrieve the lost sub while the alien presence, in some still-wonderful CG, makes itself known.
The tenseness and sense of claustrophobia is immeasurable in The Abyss. As tensions rise, some of the crew begins suffering from paranoia brought on by a less-than-delightful real world sickness called high-pressure nervous syndrome and a scene in the latter half in which Bud Brigman has his suit filled with an oxygen-rich liquid so as to keep from being crushed by the immense water pressure miles below the surface.
The Abyss remains an achievement in digital effects, set design, and underwater filming, and ranks among the best of James Cameron’s filmography.
1. Das Boot (1981)
Life during an extended stay on a U-boat during World War II is not a pleasant experience. It’s dirty. It’s cramped. And for the crew of U-96, led by Jurgen Prachnow as Captain-Lieutenant Lehmann-Willenbrock, things take an uptick for the worse when they are spotted by the British Navy during a regular patrol mission. To hide, they dive far lower than the U-boat’s depth rating. And from there, as the oxygen begins to run out and tensions run high, the team begins to come apart at the seams.
Das Boot is the ultimate example in detailing underwater claustrophobia. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, Das Boot (The Boat) was based on Lothar-Gunther Bucheim’s novel—who was a war correspondent and propaganda officer during World War II. Masterfully directed by Petersen, it feels like there is never a moment of fresh air for the U-96’s crew.
Using numerous close shots and tight framing and using the U-boat’s tight confines to compact many shots’ compositions, Das Boot is one of the director’s finest films. He would later return to the water in 2000 with The Perfect Storm.
Honorable Mentions: Leviathan, U-571.
Author Bio: Andrew Post lives in Minnesota with his wife and their two dogs. He is the author of Knuckleduster, the Fabrick Weaver series, and Rusted Heroes.