WATER: Films by Genre

By Jo Phillips

Finding it difficult to stay hydrated? Maybe this collection of films that heavily feature water will cool you down. Like within music, water can be portrayed differently depending on the personality it is given. It can be celebrated, feared or use to create a curious environment. To avoid repetition and provide an expansive study of water on the silver screen, we assembled a collection that is split into genres.

The Day After Tomorrow

Disaster  · 2004  · Roland Emmerich

The Day After Tomorrow

This is water in it’s most destructive form. Roland Emmerich is the king of the genre, having tackled other beasts in dramatic and scary fashion. Spider (Eight Legged Freaks), aliens (Independence Day), dinosaur (Godzilla) were depicted in his films. Outspoken about global warming, it wasn’t a surprise that he made this film or that he followed it up with another piece of doom (meteorological pseudoscience this time) five years later with 2012.

Unlike many disaster films, it doesn’t just take the audience on a three dimensional special effects ride with 2-D characters and endless news reports, it taps into the human psyche by predicting a very likely apocalyptic nightmare. Part entertainment, part geological commentary. Global Warming was a subject on every politician’s lips during the first half of the 2000s and the most famous ambassador of greenhouse gas reduction was Al Gore.

The Day After Tomorrow was half accurate with it’s scientific assumptions on the impact and effects Global Warming (or in this particular film Global Cooling) would have on the Earth and the new ice age it would form. Rising sea levels, cataclysmic storms, unpredictable weather patterns and ocean currents were deemed plausible. Although scientists would go on to argue that the rapid rate that the chaos happened was too speedy and would happen over a stretched out period of time. What do we expect that though? It’s a movie. Things are generally exaggerated and wrapped in a digestible attention span. The main source of inspiration was a book entitled The Coming Global Superstorm, published in 1999.

Al Gore’s documentary The Inconvenient Truth was released two years later in 2006 and was deemed to be so precise, that it ended up being added to science lessons in schools. It evolved from a presentation that the former U.S vice president made at a town hall meeting around the same time that The Day After Tomorrow was released in cinemas. It is likely that audiences never saw water the same way again.

Other Water Disaster movies: Titanic, The Perfect Storm, Poseidon,


Animation · 2008  · Hayao Miyazaki (Studio Ghibli)


The difference between living on land or in the water has been highlighted in merman/mermaid movies such as The Little Mermaid, Splash!, Mermaids and Hook. Residents of either side find the opposing habitat as a curious place, this is despite Finding Nemo making the oceans seem like a lost hopeless jungle. Japanese animation studio Studio Ghibli plays around with the idea of them being completely different worlds beautifully.

Instead of being a mermaid, Ponyo (originally called Brunhilde) is a goldfish that wishes to be a human girl. Ponyo lives in the ocean with her father and sisters, whom all have magical powers. When she is accidentally cast onto the shores of a fishing town, she meets and falls in love with human boy Sosuke. Due to a mistrust in the human race from Ponyo’s father Fujimoto, a war between the land and the ocean emerge (e.g humans get trapped in the underwater environment like prisoners) and an imbalance in the universe causes tsunamis, storms and stunning animation in the process.

The idea of the two worlds being like nations, co-existing but also having a conflict of interest divided by water is fascinating. Apart from being a fantasy, Ponyo also has it’s comedic moments making it an enjoyable family adventure.

The now retired Hayao Miyazaki included mizu (water) in his short and more simplistic films including Mizgumo Monmon (Water Spider Monmon) and Kujiratori (Whale Hunt).

Other Water Animation films: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, SpongeBob SquarePants, Finding Nemo, The Little Mermaid.


Psychological thriller · 2009  · Christopher Smith


In one of the most original and efficient movies of the 21st century, water is used in a number of ways to show suffocation, amnesia/déja vú, vanishment and mystery. Inspired by Memento and Dead of the Night for their twist on memory and premonition, a distraught mother Jess and her time lapse clones relive the same day on an abandoned ocean liner. The only hope for the latest incarnation of Jess and her mission to escape the viscous cycle is to murder her fellow cabin-mates and the other versions of herself. Although the real reason for the loop’s existence in the first place is discovered later in the movie. It sounds confusing but it’s surprisingly gripping and spine-chillingly haunting.

Before being forced onto the deserted ship, the protagonists find themselves caught in a storm which results in the drowning of one of the passengers. Water= antagonist once again. At this point, they could be stuck in the Bermuda triangle – a mysterious phenomenon around the North Atlantic Ocean- which would explain the fact that they have gone missing and the abandonment of the ship. Water then becomes a restrictive border between her horror and the chances of Jess seeing her son again. Water is also a transitional technique used by Christopher Smith connecting different parts of the loop; when Jess falls into the sea, she is temporarily away from the ship but is woken up with the tide on a crab-filled beach.

Bristolian Christopher Smith also directed other movies with graphic violence; Severance, Creep and Black Death. None of which focus on water to the same extent.

Other Thrillers that feature prominent water scenes: Cape Fear, The Fugitive (Waterfalls), Signs, Castaway, Adrift, Open Water

The Truman Show

Fantasy-drama · 1998  · Peter Weir

truman show

Despite the majority of the movie taking place on land – albeit a rather large television studio – the most pinnacle scene involves H20. Protected in a television bubble viewed by millions that tries to give him the perfect and routine life, hoax victim Truman Burbank (True-man as a cryptic deciphering of the character’s name) is still haunted by one phobia; thalassophobia, a fear of the sea.  This was installed psychologically in him as a child when the television organizers made sure that Truman witnessed his father’s fake drowning. This was an initially successful method and boundary to stop Truman from exploring outside of his programmed and controlled neighbourhood. However, he overcomes this fear when he sets sail on a yacht in a search for answers. His world’s creator Cristof risks the life of his star asset in Noah’s Ark style sequence, when he artificially summons a storm to prevent Truman from leaving. When Truman survives and reaches the end of the horizon, he discovers that the fabrication of his existence.

Water is a threat, a path to discovery and a form of restriction in Peter Weir’s commentary on extreme reality television. The film also shares similarities in it’s happening likelihood to The Day After Tomorrow, although in The Truman Show this refers to the omnipresence of surveillance. The story is adapted from an episode of The Twilight Zone from 1989 called Special Service.

Australian Peter Weir directed a number of high profile flicks including Witness and Dead Poets Society but his water-themed movies extends to 1977’s mystery drama The Last Wave. Set in Sydney, it begins with freak rainstorms and bizaare weather conditions, of which a homicide occurs within the incident. Although Defense lawyer David Burton is meant to be focused on the case, he becomes pre-occupied by weather-related dreams that predict another disaster and feels that the two subjects are connected.

Other fantasy or drama films revolving around water: Loch Ness, Lady In The Water, Splash!, Mermaids, The Life of Pi


Biblical · 2014  · Darren Aronofsky


They have been many adaptations of the Book of Genesis’ story Noah’s Ark from the Bible but Darren Aronofsky’s interpretation hits the heart as well as the brain. In case you don’t know, the flood story  is one of the world’s first apocalyptic tales. It narrates God’s intention to purify the Earth of sin by casting a human-erasing storm and reverse the universe back to it’s creation state. He gives the responsibility of rebuilding life’s population to Noah and his family and instructs them to construct an arc to inhabit them and a selection of animals to survive the blast. Water is pretty terrifying in this film and the CGI is an advantage at providing the most realistic experience as possible. Yet you could say that the most suspenseful moment is the scene where Noah has to choose whether or not kill his daughter-in-law’s children, adding an emotional aspect to the rendition.

The first cinema account of Noah’s Ark was in 1928, starring Drew Barrymore’s grandmother Dolores Costello. Even then they were so ambitious at bringing the ark and flood to life, that they used iconic special effects, hundreds and hundreds of extras, 6000 gallons of water and risked the fatalities of three actors. Luckily, it was a box office smash and become famous for being a ladder between silent films and “talkies”, known as a part-talkie.

In between the Michael Curtiz adventure and Darren Aronofsky’s take, the story of Noah has been depicted in ways that range from awful to acceptable. Disney made a comedy TV movie in 1998 that brings it the story to a modern day context, something that Evan Almighty also failed at miserably. The production company were also behind a stop motion version from 1959 and an animated short entitled Father Noah’s Ark, which was accompanied by Beethoven’s 12 Contredanses in Fantasia-style sequences. Argentinean filmmakers also had a go in 2007, which was unusually told from the animals’ perspective. However, one shouldn’t assume that everything called Noah’s Ark is biblical related as there was a short-lived television series with that name which focuses on the community of black gay men. It’s like Ocean’s Eleven, where was the “ocean in that”?

NB: Darren Aronofsky also directed a film called The Fountain, but it would be a tedious to associate that with water.


Science Fiction  · 1985 · Ron Howard


Water can be magical. Or at least that’s the theory behind one of the highest grossing films of 1985. Religion has taught us of it’s spirtual, purification and healing qualities. In Christianity, baptism is encouraged to cement one’s entry into the faith. In Islam, Muslims have to wash themselves (ritual ablution) before partaking in their five daily prayers. Whilst Hinduism recognizes it’s life-sustaining properties by including bathing is an important part of their rituals and festivals. Hindus will bath in rivers such as The Ganges; known for purifying sinners. So what do aliens think about water? Known as Antareans (because they come from the planet Antarea), they use water is a substance to carry their life force and transmit their energy; according to the science fiction movie Cocoon. Three aging pensioners that belong to a retirement home unknowingly come across a swimming pool that is tainted with the Antareans’ power. They start to discover that by swimming in this water, their bodies will feel younger, stronger and any illnesses they have will be cured instantaneously. It’s rejuvenating qualities start to become the talk of the home, with all of the other members attempting to benefit from his power. Later in the film, when the Antareans return to the ocean – one of their earlier Earth homes – they inform the residents that if they join them, they will receive immortality. Unlike other UFO films, the aliens are peaceful and are seen in a positive manner.

This isn’t the only Ron Howard film to touch upon the subject of water because he also directed the aforementioned mermaid comedy Splash! and is in the process of completing In The Heart Of The Sea; which looks at water from a biographical drama stance. Set for release in December this year, it could be packaged with Splash! and Cocoon as a water-themed trilogy boxset.

Other Science Fiction water films: The Abyss, Sphere, The Deep Blue Sea

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

Comedy-Drama  · 2004 · Wes Anderson


Oceanographers don’t suffer from thalassophobia like Truman Burbank, that’s a guarantee. They spend their lives dedicated to bodies of water. The job specification for that role, according to prospects.ac.uk is: “(they) use science and mathematics to study and explain the complex interactions between seawater, fresh water, polar ice caps, the atmosphere and the biosphere. They are involved in areas such as mineral exploitation, shipping, fisheries, coastal construction, pollution, weather prediction, climate change and renewable energy.” Yet the experienced oceanographer played by Bill Murray in the Wes Anderson film The Life Aquatic only has one thing on his mind; vengeance. Travelling in their submarine, Steve Zissou has a mission to destroy the shark that ate his best friend on his previous documentary, and intends on filming this voyage. Like most Wes Anderson films, it contains colourful odd ball characters played by well-known faces and these make up Zissou’s crew including; an airline pilot who thinks Zissou is his dad (Owen Wilson), a pregnant reporter (Cate Blanchett) and a quirky German who looks up to Zissou like a father (Willem Dafoe). The comedy element is in the bizarreness of certain scenes including when their safety expert sings David Bowie songs in the Portuguese language. 

Part of the adventure is a love rivalry, an attack by pirates, random nudity, tragedy, lessons learned and some home truths. In one of the final scenes of the movie – before the documentary is shown to applause-filled audience – Zissou confronts his shark nemesis, only to change his mind about seeking revenge because of the sea creature’s beauty. This is one of many scenes that emphasizes the allurement of the ocean.

The closest other connections to water from Wes Anderson career is The Squid and the Whale; a Noah Baumbach (who wrote The Life Aquatic) arthouse film that Anderson produced – although the title only refers to a diorama seen very briefly in the movie. Whilst his current Wikipedia profile picture shows him drinking water. Maybe that’s clutching at straws.

Das Boot

War/Fighting · 1981 · Wolfgang Petersen


Water can be the basis of a battlefield between two opposing groups, as shown by the war and pirate films set at sea. The former tend to be fictional accounts of real incidents or based historical events, like in the case of Das Boot. Das Boot is set during World War II and is based on a novel from 1973 by Lothar-Gunther Buchheim.  From the title alone, you can tell that it’s going to be from the German perspective, or more specifically Lieutenant Werner, who’s chosen as a war journalist on the German submarine U-96. Apart from studying the U-boat crew’s responsibilities and their navigation towards and away from their British enemies, it also aims to reflect the psyche/state of mind of the soldiers and their ability to cope under the pressure. On a technological level, it’s also an education in submarine structure, as several times in the film their boat has to dive below the safety limit, causing the ship to crush (known as “collapse depth”) and leave it’s passengers suffering from a lack of oxygen. An unfortunate storm is another water-related problem that the men have to deal with. It’s the longest movie on our list, especially if you include the uncut version, clocking in 293 minutes. Any WWII film can be deemed as controversial but the audience reacted pleasantly to the fact that there weren’t many survivors in the film, apart from the lead protagonist.

Klaus Doldinger provided the soundtrack to Das Boot and another film by Wolfgang Petersen; The Neverending Story. However, Petersen’ s other films fit in the same thread as Das Boot, including more water-related cinema; The Perfect Storm and Poseidon as well action films In The Line Of Fire, Air Force One and Troy.  One of the most expensive German films ever made, Das Boot proved to his entry into Hollywood – joining the likes of Roland Emmerich, Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubitsch – and he hasn’t looked back to Germany since. Although, it’s one of the few German films that’s been dubbed into English by the original actors, who were all bilingual.

Other Fighting on water films: Crimson Tide, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Cruel Sea, Master and Commander

The Bay

Found Footage Horror · 2012· Barry Levinson


Once only a filming technique, now an official genre, found footage is a movie that’s largely or entirely seen from a video camera recording. The popularity of found footage has surged in the last decade as a sub horror – despite the fact that Cannibal Holocaust was the first to apply the style in 1980 – with Blair Witch Project, REC, Cloverfield and Chronicle the most effective examples. It was inevitable that water would become highlighted in one of the collection. The Bay is a humble film from famous director Barry Levinson with a relatively unknown cast and set in a seaside town on Maryland’s Eastern Store. This is a wise move from the filmmaker as it allows the audience to focus on the realistic characters rather than the reputation of Hollywood A-listers.  The Bay follows a friendly community that relies heavily on water and falls victim to the substance. A parasite known as Cymothoa exigua or the tongue-eating louse is a real crustacean, which can bite if held alive but Levinson’ film exaggerates it’s lethal ability. This is partly due to their increased size, as a circumstance of drug-enchanced chicken feces in the town’s bay. The high toxicity of the water inhabit the parasite’ playground and cause a wide spread of deaths. The victims are generally near bodies of water such as swimming pools, lakes or the sea but as the plague can spread from body to body, other residents are just as vulnerable.

One of the clever aspects of the film is it’s choice of narrative. It jumps to different sets of characters – all of course armed with a video camera – that’s job role or purpose for being in the town makes their reaction to the situation vary and gives all rounded documentation. The most reoccurring character is a young rookie reporter who uses the drama as a chance to exercise her career potential, much to the disinterest of the panicking public. She remains enthusiastic, confident and grounded and is a synonymous with media. Then there’s the medical point of view, as a local hospital doctor speaks on webcam to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asking desperately for their help. He tries to remain professional but the stress and strain of the growing waiting list matched with a feeling of helplessness start to show. You have the scientific point of view which is less emotional and more educational, showing oceanographers first discovering the parasites. Other characters exemplify the general public including; a teenage girl that uses a video chat service to speak to a friend, a marriage couple on a vessel heading towards land and a team of police officers. This also culminates into expresses not only the horror of the event but also the multiple methods of communication in today’s society.

This is perhaps one of Barry Levinson’s lesser known films – although the Director has gone off the mainstream radar lately anyway – with his fame linked with his Baltimore series (Diner, Tin Men Avalon and Liberty Heights), Good Morning Vietnam, Busgy, Disclosure and Rain Man; the latter Oscar-winner joining the list of the films that sound water-related but unfortunately aren’t.

Other Horror water films: Jaws, Ghost Ship, The Host (World Cinema Horror), Gamera, Piranha, Anaconda

Singin’ In The Rain

Musical Comedy· 1952· Stanley Donen


Why not conclude our list with a happy ending? Maybe this article has been far too critical of our beloved water and needs to end with a celebration. Despite being made in 1952, the film is actually set even in the late 20s, and humourises the film’s industry transition from silent movies to “talkies” (including a mention of The Jazz Singer) and the complications that came with it.  It also jokes with the idea of fake celebrity couples, manufactured by their studio to increase popularity and parodies musical structure.  Surprisingly, it was a minor hit at the box office in the fifties, when you consider that it’s now in public consciousness.

Singin’ In The Rain is named after a song which features in said movie, although like the majority of the soundtrack the music was borrowed from a movie from MGM’s 1929-1939 catalogue; in this case Hollywood Revue of 1929. Make Em Laugh is one of the few original songs performed. In this movie Singing In The Rain is performed by Gene Kelly as he walks across a street joyfully embracing the watery weather. One of the reasons why the routine is so familiar is because it’s been spoofed several times, including in an advert for Volkswagen in 2005, which not only remixed the song with a hiphop beat but miraculously editing his dance moves into a contemporary context.

At the time of writing, the film’s director Stanley Donen is at the ripe age of 91 and is last surviving member of the golden age of cinema. His contribution to cinema is notable for the way he changed the format of the songs on musical; giving them dance choreography that was only achievable on screen and placing music numbers that fit naturally within the story.

Verified by MonsterInsights