15 Best Submarine Movies Ranked

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Submarines are inherently cinematic settings for thriller plots: the moody red bridge lighting, the surfaces are all dripping and reflective. Most of all, the submarine is a claustrophobic trap that ensures heightened tensions when things inevitably go wrong. It's hard to fathom piloting an underwater ship with no windows. The crews of military sub adventures, especially World War II action dramas, are floating blind, trapped in a marvel of analog engineering. A submarine's ears are its eyes, and only the haunting underwater echoes of acoustic pings can illuminate the way.

The stakes of submarine films are automatically life and death. There are no miracle crash landings under the crushing pressures of the ocean's depths, so when a leak springs in the hull, even the bitterest enemies must band together. It's a tidy little metaphor for human societies, so directors have been probing these waters for almost as long as filmmaking has existed. These are the 15 best submarine movies of all time ranked.

15. The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

Your reaction to "The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou" from 2004 will depend entirely on your tolerance for the boutique-storefront whimsy of Wes Anderson. Audiences and critics consider this Anderson's worst film, but for completists of the indie auteur, it's not a bad way to spend two hours. The writer-director brings all his usual tricks: the quick pans, the ironic wit, and of course, his unique attention to vivid vintage set designs and symmetrical cinematography.

Bill Murray plays the titular Zissou, a Jacques Cousteau kind of conservationist filmmaker, but way more depressed. It's a standard Anderson effect, but the melancholy really sets in when a monstrous shark eats Zissou's partner. This incites the skipper and his ensemble crew of Wes regulars, like Owen Wilson and Willem Dafoe, to go on a deep-sea quest for revenge. It's hard to say if the eventual giant animated shark finale is even the most lyrical part of a film. It's all a bit like an abstract watercolor the artist just couldn't stop painting. And yet, in the right mood, it's all kinds of magical.

14. Below (2002)

It's a little embarrassing to put a movie like "Below" from 2002 on a list of the best anything, let alone a taut top 15. I'm not saying "Below" is actually better than a classic like 1943's "Destination Tokyo" starring Cary Grant. But the genre of contemporaneous WWII propaganda films is as dated as you'd expect. If you're hankering for an underwater thriller for movie night, the ghost plot of "Below" will be a much easier sell.

"Below" has plenty of cheese and no A-list stars. It was, however, co-written by indie-auteur superstar Darren Aronofsky ("Requiem for a Dream") and has some of the stylish director's moody quirks. It also looks fantastic thanks to cinematographer Ian Wilson of "The Crying Game" fame.

Bruce Greenwood plays Lt. Brice, the newly minted captain of a WWII attack sub who takes over after the death of the previous skipper. When he brings three mysterious survivors of a battle aboard, strange things start happening: Crew members go missing, records begin playing by themselves, and the ship seems to have a mind of its own. When we find out Brice has been reading Shakespeare's "Macbeth," it's a not-so-subtle clue who is to blame for this underwater haunting. This is a relatively short dive at 104 minutes and will satiate your general deep-sea ghost story needs.

13. Sphere (1998)

Technically, this underrated 1998 adaptation of Michael Crichton's eerie close-encounter film is more of an underwater habitat movie in the vein of "The Abyss." There are some submarines in the mix, but more importantly, all the elements of the subgenre are here: a claustrophobic fight against the oceanic elements and a badly devolving morale among the crew as the walls close in. 

Dustin Hoffman plays Norman, a psychologist called upon for a secret mission to a deep-sea habitat where it turns out a strange and possibly extraterrestrial orb has been found buried inside a sunken spaceship. Samuel L. Jackson is fantastic as the team's resident mathematician who is suspiciously resigned to spending the anxious hours lying about reading another story about underwater peril, "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." 

Critics absolutely hated this movie, particularly the ending, but the conceit is just too intriguing to dismiss. This was Crichton at the peak of his sci-fi powers, and nobody was better at blending popular science into technically plausible thriller plots. Liev Schreiber and Sharon Stone round out this perfectly cast crew, each catching cabin fever in the face of their strange discovery. Even surrounded by super-geniuses, it's up to Norman's intuitive instincts as a shrink to solve the riddle of a mysterious alien consciousness. So forget the haters; this sci-fi adventure is a thrill if you go in understanding it's a B-movie in big-budget scuba gear.

12. K-19: The Widowmaker (2002)

"K-19: The Widowmaker" is loosely inspired by real events in 1961 when one of the first Russian nuclear missile submarines sprung a deadly radioactive leak and nearly became an underwater Chernobyl, or worse. This Kathryn Bigelow project cost $100 million, and though it lost more money than many of these other submarine films cost in total, the iconic "Point Break" and "The Hurt Locker" director really puts it all on-screen. It's a can't-miss entry into the genre for sheer scale alone.

Harrison Ford plays the classic overzealous skipper pushing his crew to their limits in this critically derided film. It seems possible the actor didn't like the film himself as he joked, "What kind of name for a movie is that, 'K-19?' It's a stupid name! And why do they have to be Russian!?" to Conan O'Brien in 2002. Ford seems to be floating a common-sense notion the studio should have just Americanized the story if they wanted their money back.

"K-19" has flaws for sure. It's egregiously long, and Ford sounds like he's from Moscow by way of Los Angeles. The strength of "K-19" is as a diorama about the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ford's fearsome captain might as well be Joseph Stalin in miniature. He's an inflexible tyrant, ruling by irrational fiat, regardless of the realities inside his submarine fiefdom. As the individuals aboard sacrifice themselves to plug the radioactive leak, the whole ill-conceived endeavor is a sinking ship.

11. Greyhound (2020)

"Greyhound" is admittedly only a semi-submarine movie, but crucially tells the story of these underwater assassins from the anxious above-water side. Tom Hanks stars in and penned the screenplay, adapted from the 1955 novel "The Good Shepherd" by C. S. Forester. He plays Captain Krause, helming a World War II Navy destroyer with the call-sign "Greyhound," escorting a sitting-duck allied convoy making a treacherous trans-Atlantic supply run in 1942 during the Battle of the Atlantic.

As a "wolf pack" of German U-boats taunts this American commander and begins picking off ships in his convoy, the notably Germanic-surnamed Krause and his eager crew engage with the enemy in an action-packed snapshot of what was the longest continuous military campaign of the war. The events of this film aren't exactly true. The action is borrowed from various historical encounters throughout the six-year pitched fight for Atlantic supremacy, and condensed into a gripping 91 minutes. Hanks' Krause refuses meal after meal as the life-and-death maneuvers go on for sleepless days in the kind of optimistically patriotic filmmaking the Hollywood icon made such an indelible brand with "Band of Brothers" and "Saving Private Ryan." "Greyhound" doesn't have the budget or breadth of those glorious projects, but Hanks remains the man you want at the helm with the fate of the free world on the line.

10. U-571 (2000)

"U-571" has an absolute crackerjack plot, extremely loosely based on real events. A young Matthew McConaughey with a great-looking buzz cut, alongside a bulkhead-sturdy Harvey Keitel, lead a cast of sailors tapped for a covert mission to steal an Enigma machine from a Nazi U-boat. Germany used this device in WWII to encrypt their war missives, and nabbing it could turn the tide. But when this crew's own submarine is sunk, they're forced to board the U-boat to survive.

"U-571" has some of the best underwater action going, but for all the excitement, modern WWII submarine movies do lack the chivalry of classics like "The Enemy Below." In place of Hollywood's former humane posture, even for America's enemies, is new zealotry: All the Germans here are war criminals and hated justifiably. Maybe this hostility hews closer to the truth than the rose-colored propaganda of golden-era movies, but the romance has been replaced with thrills and explosions and not much else. The only German really featured in the cast is a minor stowaway saboteur who certainly gets more chances than he deserves, but isn't really a fleshed-out character. "U-571" is more gritty and violent than the films that inspired it, and entertainingly so, but it's notably more cynical, too.

9. The Command (2018)

"The Command" from 2018 tells the true story of the Kursk, a Russian nuclear submarine that was stranded on the seafloor in 2000 after a devastating explosion destroyed half the boat and killed most of the crew. The movie's dramatized events ramp up as waters rise and the remaining men must cling to life as Russian brass stubbornly refuses NATO assistance.

Despite a middling budget, "The Command" has some of the most flawless and subtle cinematography of any submarine thriller. And unlike so many older titles only available in a hideous 16x9 crop, "The Command" comes as director Thomas Vinterberg intended, in full widescreen glory. Ironically, the film's only real flaw is it distractingly plays with aspect ratio as letterboxes move in and out at key moments.

"The Command" is a western European production with a stellar cast including Colin Firth. It's also very anti-Soviet. The Russian military is portrayed as a force in decline whose leadership would rather sacrifice its own soldiers than admit weakness. The only quibble is it blames a random admiral when many have pointed the finger at Vladimir Putin directly. In any event, by the time British and Norwegian rescuers were permitted to help (spoiler alert!) it was too late for all 118 souls aboard. If submarine movies are a microcosm of a global society, this film argues that without cooperation between East and West, no one will be left alive.

8. Black Sea (2014)

"Black Sea" is a really solid submarine thriller with a heist movie twist. Jude Law plays a down-and-out divorcee and Navy vet who gets laid off from his shipyard job by a faceless bureaucrat. His expertise as a submarine mechanic is all but obsolete, so in desperation, he assembles a motley crew to seek out the always tempting specter of Nazi gold. What could go wrong?

This solid British thriller was made in the shadow of the 2008 global financial meltdown and is filled with class-struggle subtexts as the ship's salty sailors heckle the "banker" on board, who is more like a lowly bagman for the powers that be. But don't let the period detail fool you, this is an underwater potboiler through and through. You know the survival plot is dead ahead when the excellent ensemble cast (including Hollywood's favorite mutinous misanthrope Ben Mendelsohn) spots their loaner sub and it's basically an airtight barnacle with batteries. Law is a Londoner by birth but trades his posh Queen's English for a gravelly Scottish Brogue as he carries this tense under-the-radar thriller from port to port — if they make it that far.

7. The Wolf's Call (2019)

Finally, we get a submarine movie where the main character is the sonarman — you know, the guy pressing studio headphones into his ears, straining to differentiate whale songs from stealthy propeller echoes. This French production available via Netflix is the kind of gripping Cold War thriller that makes other submarine movies seem waterlogged by comparison.

Burgeoning French movie star François Civil plays a gifted young audiologist. He's got perfect pitch and can pick out just about any detail of a weapon or rudder type just by listening to the sound. He's tapped for a mission aboard a nuclear sub as tensions escalate dangerously between France and Russia and must apply his unusual aptitude to help save the world.

"The Wolf's Call" opens with a quote attributed to Aristotle: "Human beings come in three kinds: the living, the dead, and those who go to sea." A submarine isn't hell in this pre-Christian formulation; it's purgatory, an apt metaphor for what we've asked of nuclear submariners. The logic of deterrence demands they must train away from their humanity and commence the apocalypse if so called upon. This kind of Cold War reasoning was famously satirized in "Dr. Strangelove." "The Wolf's Call" asks the sailors trapped in watery limbo to somehow escape the twisted knot of nuclear logic and save us all.

6. Run Silent, Run Deep (1958)

In 1958's "Run Silent, Run Deep," Clark Gable and his pencil mustache play Commander Richardson, a WWII submarine skipper stuck behind a desk after he's ignobly sunk by a Japanese destroyer. But when he gets another commission, he goes all Ahab vs. white whale, stalking the same ship in pursuit of revenge. As his orders to underlings go from hard-charging to reckless, mutiny rears its ugly head reminiscent of the revolt against Humphrey Bogart's mesmerizing madcap skipper from "The Caine Mutiny" in 1954.

If you have hesitation committing to a black-and-white war movie from the '50s complete with hokey orchestra fanfare, let "Run Silent, Run Deep" torpedo that bias. Half the shots you've seen in submarine movies were minted here first. It also comes in at a sleek 93 minutes, which is almost hard to fathom in an era where bloated Hollywood epics seem eager to finally discover the pressure capacity of the human bladder. The great Burt Lancaster plays the sub's dedicated but somewhat insubordinate first officer, and a young Don Rickles has a bit part he plays straight — which feels like a missed opportunity for some salty language. Overall, this is one of Hollywood's best WWII submarine movies and it still holds water decades later.

5. Crimson Tide (1995)

Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman play rival officers aboard a Navy nuclear sub in this simmering 1995 Cold War thriller by "Top Gun" action auteur Tony Scott. Hackman is the skipper, and Washington is his gifted XO (first officer). When a rogue Russian general's revolt threatens to kick off World War III, the men board a state-of-the-art American submarine to stop him. Viggo Mortensen and James Gandolfini are noteworthy as they round out this impeccable A-list cast.

This mid-tier Cold War blockbuster isn't trying to top "Das Boot." Tony Scott is kind of like Michael Bay with a modicum of visual restraint. He delivers large-scale action thrillers with a polish and multi-cam verve only rivaled by his better-known brother Ridley Scott. "Crimson Tide" is the best-looking submarine film in existence, and the action absolutely crackles. The nuclear armageddon plot is always a good device, but it's really just a way to ratchet up the psychological warfare between Hackman and Washington. These two masters are at the top of their game, and no one is budging an inch, even with the fate of the world on the line.

4. The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan novels have been made into exactly two classic films: "Patriot Games" in 1992 and "The Hunt for Red October" in 1990. The author's Ryan stories are wildly plotted fantasies of deep state hyper-competency. This CIA analyst's bookish approach to Cold War espionage makes it seem like the Soviets and Americans should be able to work this thing out over some black coffee and danish. In "The Hunt for Red October," Ryan (Alec Baldwin) is a Ph.D. Russia expert with a particular insight into Soviet submarine commander Captain Marko Ramius, played by Sean Connery, looking salt-n-pepper dapper in a fantastically convincing hairpiece.

Ramius sets both the Americans' and Soviets' hair on fire when he vanishes with a state-of-the-art nuclear submarine. The stealth underwater war machine would allow the Soviets to launch a knockout first strike, but in Cold War optimist Clancy-world, Ramius is no believer in a worker's paradise. He's a Yankophile sophisticate who wants to defect and live his golden years in Montana. All he has to do is evade Russian predator subs and get Ryan to convince the Americans he's not a madman gone rogue. This movie has all the normal underwater stakes, with the added tension of a nuclear exchange. 

3. The Abyss (1989)

"The Abyss" is mostly an underwater habitat movie, similar to Barry Levinson's "Sphere." But James Cameron's far superior 1989 sci-fi thriller features submarines with windows, and that allows for the best underwater chase ever put to film. Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio star as civilian divers hired by shadowy U.S. government forces to find a lost nuclear submarine. The always intense Michael Biehn plays the military point-man who gets a serious case of cabin fever and cracks under the oceanic pressure. That would be exciting enough, but Cameron adds a final act as the underwater team discovers something truly otherworldly in the unexplored depths.

Cameron came up with the idea for "The Abyss" at just 17 when he attended a lecture by the first diver to breathe fluid through their lungs — a detail featured in the film. Ever the engineer, he innovated technology to record the underwater dialogue live to tape, according to Moviefone. Overall, the shoot was a nightmare for the cast who spent much of it underwater and holding their breath as this complex production dragged on and went over budget. "'The Abyss' was a lot of things. Fun to make is not one of them," Mastrantonio recalled. Cameron might be demanding, but his finished work speaks for itself. "The Abyss" remains one of the most innovative and daring films ever made.

2. The Enemy Below (1957)

"The Enemy Below" (1957) depicts a gripping back-and-forth naval battle in the South Atlantic during WWII between a U.S. destroyer and a German U-boat. The granite-jawed Robert Mitchum heads team USA. He's a former "civilian skipper" who joined the Navy after his freighter was cut in half by a torpedo. His crew expects a shell-shocked husk, but when he turns out to be a tactically ingenious warrior-poet, the cat-and-mouse game is on.

The Captain of the Nazi U-boat below, Von Stolberg, is played by the exceptional Curd Jürgens, but he's no boot-clacking fascist. Stolberg is a drink-sodden WWI veteran who rolls his eyes as a young recruit salutes too enthusiastically. He casually hangs his wet towel over a sign reading "Führer" and laments with a sigh, "our new Germany, like a machine." As he tucks himself into his berth with two shots that taste like "oil and green mold," he muses to his second, "It's a bad war. Its reason is twisted. Its purpose is dark."

The screenplay by Wendell Mayes ("Anatomy of a Murder") is exceptional. The valiant portrayals of these equally honorable and crafty opposing captains is classic Hollywood optimism about human nature. "The Enemy Below" is an inspiring recruitment ad for high-sea valiance, but also a riveting flashback to when movies left you feeling hopeful about a fallen world.

1. Das Boot (1981)

George Orwell wrote in 1946, "The word Fascism has now no meaning except insofar as it signifies 'something not desirable.'" It's a rejoinder to linguistic laziness that divides the world into two types: Nazis, and everybody else. "Das Boot" is among the best war films ever made for its humanizing portrait of the third kind of person: those caught in the tragic tides of history.

Of the 40,000 men who went to sea in German U-boats in World War II, 30,000 never returned. That's the haunting prologue to Wolfgang Petersen's 1981 submarine classic "Das Boot," which got an excellent redux in 1997. This definitive director's cut has better sound and picture but spares no length. It's still three-and-a-half anxious hours in a tin can — but nothing compared to the nearly five-hour edit created for German TV.

Fellowship films where a group sets out on a quest always have that brief interlude where the heroes make camp, start a fire, and share a meal. Huge swaths of "Das Boot" are just this. It's the old adage: "War is long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror." No other submarine movie so completely lulls you into the claustrophobic rhythms of a stir-crazy crew, only to torpedo that tedium with shock and awe. Fighting on a doomed U-boat isn't an experience most lived to share, but according to experts, this iconic film is the best simulation there is.