Jaws movies ranked, looking at the science and the scares

Poster for the movie Jaws. Here we see the head of a great white shark underneath the blue water. Just above the shark is an unsuspecting swimmer.
(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

"Jaws" is the ultimate scary shark movie whose sequels have spawned an entire subgenre of monstrous marine predator films, but the franchise has also often done a huge disservice to these remarkable ocean creatures, typically ignoring basic shark facts. Our ranked list of all four Jaws movies aims to briefly discuss what worked well and what didn't in each installment. We've also given extra points to those that stuck closer to the rare, but real, phenomenon of human-eating sharks — Peter Benchley's original novel was inspired by real-life events, after all.

While the series' chronology is clear as day, its continuity isn't. The first two Jaws movies work well in tandem, but "Jaws 3-D" goes off the rails with a time jump that doesn't quite work and has dubious character motivations. Then, "Jaws: The Revenge" sticks closer to the first two and largely ignores the third, while also taking some big (and divisive) swings of its own.

It's worth mentioning how low-budget Italian cinema spawned a campy shark movie titled "Cruel Jaws" — also known as "The Beast" — in 1995 based on one of the best shark movies of all time. The kicker is that it was distributed in several countries as "Jaws 5: Cruel Jaws" despite having no connection whatsoever to Universal's famous franchise. Moreover, "Cruel Jaws" utilized unauthorized footage from all four Jaws movies to make up for its lack of budget. Pretty wild, huh?

If you need help to quickly stream, rent, or buy the Jaws movies, check out our extensive Jaws streaming guide to watch the entire saga online, where we list the best options available. For more engrossing shark-centric watches, we suggest checking out last summer's Shark Week programming. We also have an extensive list of Jurassic Park movies ranked worst to best, plus a handy Jurassic Park streaming guide, if you're into movies about animals chomping on humans.

4. Jaws 3-D

Still from the movie JAws 3-D. Here we see a close up of a great white shark,

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)
  • Release date: July 22, 1983
  • Cast: Dennis Quaid, Simon MacCorkindale, Bess Armstrong, Louis Gossett Jr.

You probably expected to see "Jaws: The Revenge" in the last position here, but we're fairly sure the third movie is the worst out of the two terrible sequels that effectively killed the franchise.

"Jaws 3-D" actually worked with a pretty interesting premise that could've been turned into a solid blockbuster in the right hands: a giant great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) — way bigger than the biggest sharks in today's world — makes SeaWorld its new home, and chaos ensues. In real life, great white sharks do terribly in captivity and often die after they stop eating and swimming. The Monterey Bay Aquarium in California is the only aquarium in history to successfully keep a white shark in captivity, which lasted for 198 days before they released it back into the wild.

Sadly, the script of "Jaws 3-D" is criminally dull, and the directing by Joe Alves is easily the franchise's worst, making all the action and suspense fall flat. Furthermore, the terrible 3-D effects remain plastered all over the movie forever — and it never looked good to begin with.

On the upside, Dennis Quaid wasn't a bad lead as the oldest of the Brody sons, and Simon MacCorkindale's Philip FitzRoyce is a rather charming antagonist.

3. Jaws: The Revenge

Still from the movie Jaws: The Revenge. here we see a close up of a giant great white shark's mouth as it goes jumps at a young family.

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)
  • Release date: July 17, 1987
  • Cast: Lorraine Gary, Lance Guest, Mario Van Peebles, Michael Caine

The fourth Jaws was the harpoon that killed the series for good. While the complete production of the other three movies took around two years each, "Jaws: The Revenge" was made in less than nine months… and it shows. Joseph Sargent's directing is slightly superior to Joe Alves' work on the third one, but that's a low bar to clear.

The movie finds Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary) a widow after Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) died of a heart attack off screen — the studio never stopped trying to bring him back after the second installment. In a shocking and unusually dark opening, a great white shark brutally kills Sean, the youngest of the Brody sons. The next few scenes set up what could've been an interesting take on intergenerational trauma and how an extremely specific type of horror keeps haunting the Brody family. Instead, it quickly becomes a goofy fourquel when the same shark follows the family to the Bahamas and we learn that, somehow, Ellen has developed a psychic connection with the creature. Not even the weirdest sharks ever are that weird.

"Jaws: The Revenge" could've been trashy but entertaining (the shark roars!), but it mostly isn't any fun due to its meandering pace and jarring tonal shifts. A cut subplot, which is present in the movie's novelization, explains the "psychic connection" as the result of a voodoo curse. We honestly don't know whether including that in the final cut would've made it better or worse. We all can agree that Michael Caine's Hoagie kicks ass, though.

2. Jaws 2

Still from the movie Jaws 2. Here we see a woman water-skiing and a shark fin behind her.

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)
  • Release date: June 16, 1978
  • Cast: Roy Scheider, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Joseph Mascolo

Universal was quick to follow up on Jaws' success with a straight sequel that lassoed in Roy Scheider for a second round against a shark that couldn't differentiate humans from snacks. While Jeannot Szwarc's work fell pretty far from Steven Spielberg's masterpiece, "Jaws 2" is a decently shot movie working with a reasonable but uninspired script.

Perhaps the first sequel's biggest positive is how it passes some of the narrative weight on to younger characters, though it's weird how it doesn't fully commit to giving Martin Brody's sons the complete spotlight. Instead, the movie follows a large group of hormonal teenagers (including the Brodys) who like sailing a bit too much.

Despite an awkward ending and a silly scene early on that involves a boat blowing up, "Jaws 2" is mostly tense and packs a couple of scenes that are as terrifying as the original movie's best. It's just a bit messy and unfocused.

1. Jaws

Still from the movie Jaws. Here we see a giant great white shark breaching the waves to attack a boat. A man with a shotgun on his back is scrambling up the boat's mast to get to safety.

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)
  • Release date: June 20, 1975
  • Cast: Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary

Steven Spielberg's character-driven horror thriller remains a scary watch almost five decades later, and feels like lightning in a bottle. It's wonderfully written, superbly acted and expertly shot. And none of that is ruined by the janky shark animatronic, which has a couple of less-than-flattering close-ups.

The many issues the production team faced with the mechanical shark resulted in Spielberg deciding to mostly suggest the shark's presence for a large part of the movie, a choice that really worked in its favor. When coupled with John Williams' iconic and ominous music, "Jaws" became a special kind of blockbuster beast that audiences had never seen before.

Benchley's "Jaws" 1974 novel spawned this film industry that ignited fear around sharks, but he later worked as a shark advocate and created the Benchley Awards to honor achievements in ocean conservation. The so-called ninja lanternshark, a glowing shark that's just 1.7 feet (0.5 meters) long, is even named after the author, with the scientific name Etmopterus benchleyi.

For better or worse, this classic also established the "modern blockbuster" model of Hollywood chasing massive box office returns with high-concept, action-adventure movies released during the summer.

Fran Ruiz is an entertainment freelancer and massive dinosaur nerd. He has a BA of English Studies, focusing on English Literature, from the University of Malaga, in Spain, as well as a Master's Degree in English Studies, Multilingual and Intercultural Communication. On top of writing features and other longform articles for  Live Science & Space.com since 2021, he is a frequent collaborator of VG247 and other gaming sites. He also serves as associate editor over at Star Wars News Net and its sister site, Movie News Net.