Hollywood’s tradition of pitting movie stars against monsters is nearly as old as cinema itself. Yet, in the past few decades, the creature feature has gone from starring aliens or other xenomorphs to real world animals. Spielberg’s 70s blockbuster Jaws set the template. As Chris Rock famously said regarding the 2003 tiger attack of Roy of Sigfried & Roy, “that tiger didn’t go crazy, that tiger went tiger!” Think Leo’s tussle with a grizzly bear in The Revenant. The hubris of silly mammals with opposable thumbs are typically no match for Earth’s animal kingdom. The following five films represent inventive settings, strong actors, and even stronger real world reptiles, fish, and mammals. The only caveat for our ranking was highlighting a singular beastie per each slot. If not, the list of shark tales would undoubtedly be endless.
5. Beast (2022) – Idris Elba vs. Lion
By far the most sympathetic animal on the list, Beast’s proud lion is brutal, angry, and intelligent. All of his rage is directed at soulless poachers who killed his entire pride in the film’s tragic opening. Unfortunately for Dr. Nate Daniels (Idris Elba) and his two daughters, they are caught in the middle of a turf war. Director Baltasar Kormákur employs long takes, which smartly restricts audiences to seeing only what’s in Idris’ view. Even when armed with a rifle and a jeep, the bulk of the story highlights how under-powered humans are against such a giant-sized feline. A committed performance by an A-list actor and a vast South African landscape keep us invested even though, truth be told, it’s hard not to root for the lion.
4. Anaconda (1997) – Jennifer Lopez and Ice Cube vs. Giant Snake
The oldest film on the list is the silliest and, arguably, the most re-watchable, Anaconda is still a blast. Director Luis Llosa isn’t interested in any kind of reality beyond “giant anaconda attacks a film crew in South America.” With that in mind, even with all the snake action taking place, the sight of the titular giant snake regurgitating Jon Voight (who gives us all a wink for good measure) is the gift that keeps on giving.
3. The Shallows (2016) – Blake Lively vs. Great White Shark
The poster featuring Blake Lively on a surfboard with shark fin right below the surface screams dumb stuff white people do but hear us out – there is a reason for the situation! After the recent death of her mother, Nancy (Lively) travels to a remote beach to get away from her remaining family members, soak in the sun, and think about her mom. Unbeknownst to her, a recently deceased whale with giant teeth marks signals an unwanted guest: the shark (Nancy does make friends with a friendly seagull though). Director Jaume Collet-Serra’s tense survival film was a critical and commercial success, raking in nearly $120 million globally. More than a few films on this list owe a debt to the moderately budgeted, well-paced, lean genre picture.
2. The Grey (2012) – Liam Neeson vs. Wolves
Billed as a kind of real world take on John Carpenter’s The Thing, Liam Neeson starred in this snowbound Alaskan tale about a five-week stint for oil refinery works that goes haywire when a storm hits and a pack of cunning wolves begin hunting the survivors of a plane crash. Director Joe Carnahan’s treatment of the wolves as animals and not sci-fi leaning enhanced ones à la Deep Blue Sea (which rocks) was the big draw. Even with a sharpshooter amongst them, being picked off by a pack of wolves was scary because it felt so real. And it all leads to one of the best, bleakest endings since, well, The Thing.
1. Crawl (2019) – Kaya Scodelario vs. Alligators
The top spot easily goes to director Alexandre Aja’s horror/thriller featuring the ultimate showdown of apex predators: a competitive swimmer versus generically faster gators. When Haley (Kaya Scodelario) ignores an evacuation warning to find her estranged father, a Category 5 hurricane devastates a small Florida town. Underneath an old house, in the crawlspace, daughter and dad need to avoid a squad of hungry alligators while the water rises. Aja’s expert use of mud-soaked spaces, a lone cell phone, and incredibly convincing CGI chompers equals a tight 87 minutes of sustained high tension. Amidst all the family drama is an absurdist plight of a few dimwitted locals attempting to steal an ATM from a flooded convenience store because Darwinism. These creatures are formidable one-on-one or as a clever raptor-like trio. At the eye of the storm is an engaging race between woman and animal. Apex predator all day.
Bonus: Grizzly Man (2005)
Werner Herzog’s acclaimed documentary chronicles the life and death of bear enthusiast/activist Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard. Assembled mainly from Treadwell’s own video and audio recordings of his life among brown bears in Katmai National Park, Alaska, there is no better account of best intentions gone horribly wrong than Herzog’s stunning film. It’s an effective but chilling reminder that nature always wins.