REVIEW: 'The Meg' shows a bad genre still has some bite

Jason Statham and Li Bingbing (centre) star in  The Meg , directed by Jon Turteltaub.

Jason Statham and Li Bingbing (centre) star in The Meg, directed by Jon Turteltaub.

In the decades since Jaws simultaneously invented the summer blockbuster and created an entire genre – the shark movie – no aquatic-based release has ever topped Steven Spielberg’s masterpiece. These days, most of the competition lurks on TV; the most prominent being the recently-concluded Sharknado series, a concept that should have been a 5-minute short but was watered down into something resembling homeopathic medicine.

Other than the 2016 Blake Lively vehicle The Shallows, it’s not as common for Hollywood to dive back into shark movies anymore. But loaded up with Chinese financing from Gravity Pictures, another creature has reared its head: The Meg, a shark movie that’s spent about 22 years in various states of development hell. How the project ended up with stars like Jason Statham and Li Bingbing and a roughly $150 million budget is probably a movie in its own right, but here we are, watching it take a sizeable bite out of the late-summer box office.

The plot is probably unsurprising: a group of well-funded marine researchers penetrate a previously-unexplored zone in the deepest part of the ocean, only to rouse a prehistoric predator called a megalodon – an 80-foot ancestor to modern sharks with an appetite to match. When a research sub is trapped at the ocean floor with the beastie, rescue expert Jonas Taylor (Statham) is called upon to help, giving us a question for our times: what would win in a fight – an eating machine with a 10-foot mouth, or Jason Statham’s fist?

By the time the second act rolls around, it’s clear this movie isn’t quite as tongue-in-cheek as the Bobby Darin needle-drop in the trailer suggests. There’s a little too much self-seriousness to call it a comedy, and a little too much comedy to call it a thriller. The mixture of tones doesn’t make it impossible to watch, just hard to recommend; especially when you could easily go see Mission: Impossible – Fallout again.

To its credit, The Meg tries to show off a warm-hearted core in an otherwise ridiculous summer entertainment. Jonas apparently struggles with the moral decisions he must make as a rescuer, and the plot finds plenty of ways to push him towards Suyin (Li), the marine biologist and her cute daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai). Statham even displays some chemistry with his co-stars, the highlight being the one-liners given to Cai. But there’s only so much space in a movie like this for character development and nuance (i.e., hardly any) so we mostly just get some moodily-lit dramatic stares between Statham and Li before the shark action begins again.

Li's role as a marine biologist is a clear play for the Chinese market.

Li's role as a marine biologist is a clear play for the Chinese market.

For a movie brimming with scientist and technical characters, the screenwriters can’t quite explain why an 80-foot shark would bother with tiny humans (or even a beachful of them) when earlier in the film, it’s made clear that whales and giant squid would make better meals. I suppose this is one of those movie sharks that seems to have a vendetta against certain humans, much like in the film that sunk the Jaws franchise. But how else do you set up a scene where Statham’s character must swim out to tag the shark with a GPS beacon, while singing “Just Keep Swimming” from Finding Nemo?

The odd thing about The Meg is that it has a handful of winning components – it just doesn’t have an arc to hang them on. Statham’s Jonas is a guy who was thought insane when he first encountered the shark, but is proven right by the end of the first act, and rarely has a moment of self-doubt or internal conflict from that point on. He’s exactly the kind of static action hero that we’d expect to see in a DC movie. In the absence of any personal growth, the screenplay falls back on the creature-feature stuff that the rest of the genre is known for, and there’s not many ways to innovate on a shark popping out of the water and snatching a snack.

It’s also hard to intuit what Warner Bros’ plan is: are they merely getting The Meg out the door and hoping for an uncomplicated August profit? Or will Jason Statham be given a new ungodly sea creature to take out? Here’s hoping we can sic him on the Aquaman movie.

The Meg gets two and half stars out of four.

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Stray thoughts

  • We never find out how exactly Rainn Wilson’s billionaire character makes his money, or whether he’s supposed to reference any real-life philanthropists.
  • The movie does get a few extra points for how they finally kill the shark.
  • We desperately needed a bonding scene like the shanty song sequence from Jaws.