Submarine movies have always provided a setting that invokes tension, and most films that feature submarines offer thrilling scenes. Here are the best Submarine movies that fall into multiple genres. To qualify, the movie most take place primarily under water and feature submersibles in multiple scenes. For example, a film such as Sphere, while taking place underwater, has only a few scenes actually in a submersible, instead taking place almost entirely in a stationary facility (similar to such films as Deep Star Six and Leviathan).
Not the Best Submarine Movies
An interesting premise about a haunted World War II American submarine that applies extra tension to a scenario that shouldn't necessarily need anymore. It's a forced premise that never really works. The scenes of underwater combat are solid, but the supernatural aspects never quite make sense. It could be argued that the turn of events are based on the crew's stress and is a representation of their situation but it's never realized as a successful plot device.
Not a war film like most of the films on the list, Black Sea is about a salvage mission in, you guessed it, the Black Sea. While there are no warring submarines, the internal turmoil of a half English speaking and half Russian speaking crew is the root of the problems aboard when they find themselves struggling to repair their damaged sub. There is a lot of sitting around, the action is sparse but the performances are good in this bleak underwater tale.
A submarine attempts to mask its signature so that enemy subs do not detect them during the early days of the cold war. Ed Harris plays a retiring Soviet Captain with a KGB agent aboard (played by David Duchovny). Something else is afoot as again, turmoil among the crew. It’s a noble attempt at bring to light something that did, indeed happened, but the special effects and storytelling are subpar. The movie’s climax never quite builds enough tension to matter, and the stakes are never close enough to be realized.
The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
There is a submarine in this movie, featured very prominently. And while The Life Aquatic is technically a submarine film, it is hardly important to the plot, of which is overrated, especially in the Wes Anderson catalog of films. Bill Murray is great, as he almost always is, but the plot is weak and absurd, and the dry humor only carries it so far.
If The Life Aquatic is overrated than Down Periscope is underrated. About as funny as you’d expect, it’s the action and tense sub encounters that are surprising. The story of an embarrassed Captain looking for redemption put into a situation where failure is the likely option. Down Periscope is an underdog story with enough clever battle tactics that are both fun and entertaining.
US military personnel board a German submarine to steal an enigma device (to crack code transmissions, only for their submarine to be sunk. The crew must be wary of German and American attackers, as well as operating the commandeered vessel. The factual inaccuracies not withstanding, U-571 provides very tense sequences, solid action and a good cast help to make this the a strong submarine film.
K-19: The Widowmaker
Another film based on real events, and also taking place during the Cold War, a reactor leak puts the crew at risk. There are no warring submarines in K-19, just a crew’s fight for survival. Starring Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson as head butting leaders among the crew, it’s a harrowing story about the isolation at sea, military secrets and performance in the line of duty when it comes to saving your men.
The Enemy Below
The Enemy Below is about an American Destroyer chasing a German U-boat at its simplest, but the relation between the adversarial commanders is what sets it apart. To parallel a more recent film, both the American and German commander come to respect each other similar to the way Vincent Hanna and Neil McCauley from Heat do. It’s complicated, they are enemies by default, but they both understand the reason why the must do what they are doing. In the Enemy Below these motivations are more noble, as the small-scale is just to keep their men alive.
Great Submarine Movies
20,000 Leagues Under The Sea
Despite its age (released in 1954), 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea still inspires a sense of wonder. A retro-future inspired story for Jules Verne is realized beautifully on film, and it’s because of this setting, that it has helped the film age well. 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea is led by a terrific performance by James Mason, playing Captain Nemo and while Kirk Douglas is a great supporting actor, it’s really the vessel, the Nautilus that is the second star of the movie.
Ice Station Zebra
Spectacularly produced for the time, and one of the best of the genre for many years, Ice Station Zebra doesn’t quit hold up in the visual department, but has a solid premise based around Cold War espionage and is buoyed by a strong cast led by Rock Hudson and Ernest Borgnine. Tasked with rescuing a team in the Arctic Ocean, but really part of a covert mission, where the rescue mission puts the crew and the rescued team in more danger than breaching the ice.
The Hunt for Red October
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan novels have made for excellent films, and Ryan himself is an intriguing character, but while The Hunt for Red October certainly features Ryan, it’s not so much about him. Most of the weight of the story belongs to the Captain of the Red October played by Sean Connery. He and his crew are playing a dangerous game, and Ryan’s job is to interpret that to the Americans before all hell breaks loose. Terrific sub combat and political intrigue make The Hunt for Red October a terrific sub film.
Some of the Best Submarine Movies
Run Silent Run Deep
Despite being made during a time of color, Run Silent, Run Deep was filmed in black and white. In the long run, this has perhaps aged the film more than expected, especially when compared to a film of the same era such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It’s not hard to see the influence this movie has had on literally every other similarly themed submarine film, and that’s possibly one reason it may not hold up, the scenarios seem familiar. However, when it is understood
Based on true events, but updated for modern times, Crimson Tide has just as much tension taking place internally aboard the submarine than it does during enemy encounters. This film focuses more on ethics, chain of command and following orders and procedures than it does on warring submarines, but it has that too. Performances from Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington are as always, strong, but all of the crew members shine in their roles as well. This is perhaps the last great Cold War film (always those damn separatists).
While most of the Abyss takes place on a submersible base, there are critical scenes that take place within submarines. The Abyss is masterly crafted as scenes were actually filmed underwater. It is also famous for the technology used to create the alien (and later the T-1000, also a James Cameron film). But perhaps the most amazing thing about this science-fiction picture is that everything besides the alien itself is so real, even displaying the latest technology for the time. This adds a a realism not seen in most sci-fi, actually explaining the science behind the tech, it’s refreshing.
The Best Submarine Movie
One of the rare World War II films depicting the Germans as soldiers and not just Nazis, and not just as the evil enemy but as fearful of death just as a natural human instinct. It's less about winning the fight than surviving the fight. It’s also rare that such a film, foreign and foreign language, would be received so well by US audiences, where it had its highest gross. The best parts of Das Boot have been emulated in almost every submarine film since, with rare improvements. This is more of a testament to Das Boot’s quality than it is to the inadequacy of the films to come after it.