Halfway through Jason Statham’s giant shark movie The Meg, Rainn Wilson, playing the comic relief tech billionaire who has bankrolled a naval research station for, um, reasons, declares a premature victory. The prehistoric shark they accidentally let out of the ocean floor has apparently been neutralized, and they’re all finally out of harm’s way (they’re not, but they don’t know that yet). The weary-eyed head scientist (Winston Chao) greets this boast with a sigh followed by a speech about all the friends they’ve lost to that point and how, worst of all, they’ve failed science. Science! (This is the same character who earlier randomly condemns shark poachers with a solemn “All for a bowl of soup.”) Wilson, in full “just take the win, dude” mode, shrugs, makes several exasperated noises, and then walks off, clearly annoyed by Captain Buzzkill.
It’s an ultimately small scene, one most will instantly forget, but it’s emblematic of the entire film: Wilson represents the side of the story that just wants to have fun – stupid, mindless, B-movie fun, the kind where when you think you’ve defeated a man-eating shark you celebrate; Chao stands in for higher-minded ideals, like social commentary. Those two sides duke it out through the length of The Meg, leaving us, the audience, as the true losers. When the final frame of the film is used to playfull spell out a pun (“Fin,” doubling as “end of the film” and “shark fin”) we just wish director John Turteltaub and company hadn’t waited so long to finally show their playful side.
It’s not that shark movies can’t emphasize human drama. Jaws and The Shallows are two good examples of that. It’s more that when we live in a world in which Sharknado is now up to its sixth installment and your premise is basically “Look at this big ass shark!” or “Jurassic Shark!” why resist leaning into the cheesy B-movie of it all?
Yet, The Meg, adapted from Steve Alten’s book series, resists it just about every step of the way. It’d be forgivable if the screenwriting and filmmaking was strong enough to help us move past schlocky expectations and into serious-minded rewards. That never quite happens, though.
Jason Statham plays a deep sea diving expert named Jonas. He’s introduced to us mid-mission, already engaged in a deep dive to save the crew of a nuclear vessel. When he’s forced to close the hatch and depart just in time to save most of the crew but not those poor souls who couldn’t make it to him in time, a fellow survivor accusingly bellows, “What did you just do?” The moral weight of the situation instantly washes over Jonas’ face, and the dramatic music swells as the title card finally flashes.
They’re trying to make a serious movie here, aren’t they? Yep.
No one apparently told the marketing department, which released trailers promising a very different kind of movie:
We pick up five years later, with Jonas now a drunk living it up in Thailand and his ex-wife Lori (Battle of the Sexes’ Jessica McNamee) working at an underwater research facility. She’s about to captain a dive attempting to prove the Marianas Trench is not the bottom of the ocean but instead a gas cloud hiding untold depths below. It’s a theory conceived by Chao’s Dr. Minway Zhang, whose oceanographer daughter (Li Bingbing’s Suyin) and adorable granddaughter (Shuya Sophia Cai) are also aboard the research facility. When Lori’s dive successfully penetrates below the Trench but encounters resistance from some unseen, but very large, fast-moving creature Jonas is called upon to lead the rescue mission. Suyin, however, refuses to wait for him and goes down on her own, which then forces Jonas to save both her and Lori’s crew.
The “When are we going to get to the fireworks factory?” is pretty hard to ignore through most of this. It’s the 2014 Godzilla all over again. Given all the tools they need to make a goofy creature feature, a filmmaking team opted to instead focus on human characters and delayed gratification. We don’t see the giant shark until a third of the way into the movie, and its first attack on a populated area doesn’t happen until the very end. Godzilla at least made up for its delayed monster reveal with a compelling Bryan Cranston performance, spoiler that is until his character dies, of course.
The Meg doesn’t have that. The characters are all thoroughly one-dimensional, and Statham is just doing the same old Statham shtick. It’s all a rather dull affair. Watchable, but decidedly lacking any real spark of ingenuity.
So, the shark attacks better be damn amazing.
They’re not. They’re perfectly diverting, but also deficient on new ideas. Seeing someone in the water desperately swimming away from the shark and its fast-approaching dorsal fin is fairly thrilling. Seeing it happen time and time again and filmed in the exact same way gets old. Even when the shark finally makes its way to an actual beachfront, in this case, Sanya Bay near Shanghai, the attacks are astonishingly swift and bloodless, although there is one bit involving the shark hunting down a boy in a bubble which earns high marks. Plus, the various overhead shots giving us a sense of the overwhelming scale of this beast have a certain spark.
Still, what we end up with is Jaws meets Deep Blue Sea as a family film. As Statham told Total Film, “This is a film for the family. A kid’s imagination runs wild. I remember watching King Kong, Godzilla, Moby Dick, anything with a dinosaur in it, or a creature that was big. It’s so memorable. Well, this is a monster.” See Kong: Skull Island and Rampage for better examples for how to do that kind of thing on a popcorn movie budget.
So, The Meg is the type of movie where any hint of edge has been thoroughly sanded off. There’s a rich white guy villain who’s not really a total villain and also kind of the comic relief. There are shark attacks aplenty, yet the only blood we see is from the whales the shark kills. There’s a classical love interest dynamic between Statham and Bingbing, yet the film closes with them failing to share a big kiss. A cute little dog swimming in the water is implied to have been eaten by the shark until, surprise, turns out the dog’s just fine.
After all of that, one imagines this serving as a worthwile gateway aquatic horror film for younger audiences.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A movie with a prehistoric shark the size of a semi-truck has no business taking itself so seriously, but, by all means, work in your commentary about illegal fishing practices and make us care about the scientist whose disciplinarian dad never said: “I love you.”
But, I can’t be too mad at it. After all, there is a scene where Jason Statham almost punches the shark in the nose.
RANDOM PARTING THOUGHTS
- The Meg cost $150m to make and was partially funded by a Chinese company, which likely explains the PG-13 middle-of-the-road nature of it all. They had to think about how they were going to break even worldwide and get through the Chinese censorship board.
- Re: The Meg and Deep Blue Sea: The whole reason The Meg infamously went through a twenty-year development hell is that shortly after Disney bought the rights in 1997 Deep Blue Sea bombed and softened the appetite in Hollywood for shark movies. It took The Shallows and 47 Meters Down to change that.
- There are other members of the cast besides Statham, Bingbing, Wilson, and Chao, but none of them really matter. The obvious standout is Ruby Rose, playing a programmer who has few lines and keeps falling into the water, but she looks completely badass the whole time because, well, she’s Ruby Rose.