Written by: Dean Georgaris (screenplay), Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber (screenplay), Steve Alten (novel)
Directed by: Jon Turteltaub
Starring: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, and Rainn Wilson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Pleased to eat you.
We usually associate long-awaited films with franchises, many of which boast at least one entry that was years in the making, leaving us to wonder if we’d ever see the likes of Freddy vs. Jason, Evil Dead 4, Phantasm V, or a fourth Romero dead film, to name a few. In these cases, it’s fair to say that the long waits were sort of intertwined with the mythos of those titles, to the point where it’s difficult to ignore how they ultimately altered the perception of the films themselves: with the weight of several years’ worth of anticipation behind them, they became certified events that had to live up to a unique level of hype, with some shouldering the task better than others.
So it is with The Meg, the very long-gestating adaptation of Steve Alten’s popular novel, a project that began development in the late-90s before floundering about, passing through various filmmakers’ hands (including the likes of Jan De Bont, Guillermo Del Toro, and Eli Roth) along the way. Arriving now in 2018, cresting on the wave of an unexpected shark movie zeitgeist, Jon Turteltaub’s take is perfectly fine, something you perhaps don’t want to hear after two decades. Whether it’s fair or not, them’s the breaks: while The Meg boasts a terrific cast and strikes the right tone, it feels like it’s throttled out in fourth gear, frustratingly unable to meet expectations or even barrel ahead into true trash movie greatness.
It is a respectable adaptation of Alten’s novel, as the screenplay leaves just enough of its bones intact as to be recognizable. Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is reimagined here as a deep sea diver who specializes in harrowing rescues; when one outing goes horribly awry thanks to the presence of a mysterious creature, he’s forced to abandon the mission, stranding several men to perish in an explosion. Disgraced and written off as a kook thanks to his ravings about the huge creature, he becomes a drunken recluse in Thailand, at least until he’s pulled back into the game by Mac Mackreides (Cliff Curtis), an old friend bearing bad news: Jonas’s ex-wife is trapped at the bottom of the Mariana Trench in a submarine after encountering something huge. Sensing this as a chance at vindication, he returns to the fold, dives headlong into the trench, and successfully rescues most of the stranded crew, all while confirming that he wasn’t nuts all those years ago: there is, in fact, a megalodon shark patrolling these depths, and this crew has unwittingly helped it to escape to the surface.
What’s most surprising is that The Meg is actually quite serious and restrained about all of this. It’s rare to see modern shark movies—much less movies about absurdly large ones—take such an approach, but Turteltaub aims for genuine tension during Jonah’s rescue mission by keeping the shark in the shadows of the trench and keeping the human element in focus. In a harbinger of things to come, the cast of characters proves to be quite likeable here, bonded by a lived-in, believable sense of deep sea camaraderie: only true lunatics would engage in this kind of work, and you sense an unspoken connection through that, which effectively (if not unexpectedly) blunts your bloodlust. You go into The Meg craving mindless, popcorn movie killer shark action, then Turteltaub blindsides you with an understated, intimate little thriller for the first 40 minutes or so. Make no mistake: he knows you’re here for the shark and deftly teases out its presence by revealing it in piecemeal fashion, but he cleverly redirects that anticipation into a nervous excitement by placing the human stakes at the forefront.
The Meg eventually blossoms into the summer blockbuster you expect, even if it remains relatively tame, leaving you to wonder if maybe Turteltaub and company are too resistant in indulging this premise. A red flag emerges early, when he reveals megalodon with little fanfare: after he skillfully establishes the giant shark’s enigmatic presence, you wait for that big, spectacular moment when Taylor and company realize exactly what they’re dealing with, only for Turteltaub to downplay the moment. It’s an omen of sorts—not necessarily a terrible one since The Meg is decent enough—but one that definitely speaks to how this film never quite seizes the moment quite like you want it to. Don’t get me wrong: it has its moments—it’s just that you might expect a few more rousing moments in a movie where Jason Statham faces down a prehistoric shark.
This criticism aside, The Meg at least has its heart in the right place: given that this film’s arriving in the shadow of the likes of Sharknado, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where this was treated as an aggravating, glib farce. In fact, the marketing points in that direction by playing up the absurdity of the premise, something the film itself doesn’t really do, thankfully. Instead, it takes a casually wry approach once the megalodon surfaces, with everyone involved taking it just seriously enough. The Meg highlights what a delicate tightrope walk a movie like this requires: obviously, you don’t conjure up “Jason Statham vs. Giant Shark” and opt for a dour approach, but you also don’t need constant reminders that what you’re watching is stupid, making you somehow complicit in its stupidity by watching it. No, The Meg is the sort of movie where Statham makes the deadpan argument that he’ll have to wade into the sea solo to confront the shark since it’s “already shown aggression towards boats," and you’re expected to just go with it: maybe it's dumb logic, but the decision to just breeze along is quite sound.
Appropriately enough, The Meg ultimately feels like a throwback to 90s blockbusters in this respect: it’s big, unassuming, and fun in a way these sorts of movies rarely are anymore, especially on the even more rare occasion that they feature giant monsters. Bolstered by a charismatic cast and terrific effects work, it meets the basic requirements for this sort of thing and skims along (mostly) without a hitch as the carnage escalates. Statham is a sturdy anchor here, leaning into the “sensitive badass” persona he’s cultivated for over a decade: at one point Taylor insists nobody can appeal to his better nature because he doesn’t have one, but Statham’s concerned, eager eyes immediately betray the sentiment. There’s not much to him as a character beyond “kicks ass at everything,” but it’s all right there in the title: it’s The Meg, not Jonas Taylor and The Meg.
As such, the cast surrounding Statham is similarly one-dimensional, albeit no less likeable for the most part—even the jerkass doctor (Robert Taylor) that diagnosed Taylor as an overstressed lunatic eventually comes around and has a nice, redemptive moment. Just about everyone from this refreshingly diverse cast stands out for some reason or another, even if the entirety of their character can be described with a few words: “badass engineer” (Ruby Rose), “competent, dignified dude” (Cliff Curtis), “ambitious, heroic explorer” (Bingbing Li), “precocious tyke” (Shuya Sophia), “motor-mouthed comic relief” (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson & Page Kennedy), and “bozo Elon Musk wannabe” (Rainn Wilson). Turteltaub takes a gamble that mostly pays off in leaning on these personalities to carry The Meg in lieu of exhausting, unceasing spectacle: you don’t mind spending time with this crew, and the script strings together enough harrowing sequences to satisfy the real reason you’re here to see this in the first place.
That said, it’s tough to shake that nagging feeling that The Meg isn’t quite the best version of itself. Much has been made in the lead up—by both Statham and Turteltaub themselves, even—about the PG-13 rating kneecapping its gory potential. While it’s obviously a concern, it’s hardly the most pressing one: what I found much more dismaying was the lack of sheer spectacle. In a somewhat ironic turn of events, we finally have a big budget riff on this premise, one that can more than adequately render a believable CGI megalodon, only to see Turteltaub shy away from reveling in it too much. Between the rapid fire editing and some tight framing, the shark comes across as a bit too much of a fragmented presence, coaxing shock and awe only on occasion. A movie centered on a rampaging megalodon demands a level of grandeur and spectacle to which The Meg seldom rises: even the quick bit in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom with the mosasaurus emerging through a giant wave is more evocative than just about anything that surfaces here.
It’s especially frustrating since Turteltaub’s approach is otherwise sound: there’s a nice sense of escalation, punctuated by a smattering of clever moments. A riff on the patented, Jaws-inspired mid-movie misdirection is deviously cunning and paves the way for one of the few startling visuals the film has to offer. Spielberg’s landmark film is an obvious influence, but The Meg has fun with the formula by essentially playing out like Jaws in reverse: where that film features carnage early and often before narrowing in scope, this one balloons out and reserves most of its bloodshed for the third act, wherein the megalodon terrorizes a beach stuffed with oblivious swimmers (including a dog named Pippen and a little boy that you’re terrified is going to be an Alex Kintner analogue).
Turtelaub definitely keeps his tongue planted in his cheek more than Spielberg ever did, though, as he builds towards this sequence with a deranged showmanship, inviting the audience to practically delight in the chaos. Throngs of potential shark bait crowd together as the beast lurks beneath the water before surfacing for a quick, rowdy fit of violence that’s abruptly cut short, once again denying a frustrated audience the opportunity to really have fun. What could have been a worthy successor to the blood-soaked climax in Aja’s Piranha 3D stalls out far short of such distinction—or any distinction at all, really.
That sequence best captures The Meg: just when it looks like it’s going to kick into a delirious gear, it pulls back, seemingly afraid to embrace its schlocky potential. Turteltaub rightfully takes the premise seriously but seems to underestimate just how much fun can be had with it until it’s a bit too late. Just when he comes around to delivering absurd nonsense—like Statham literally engaging the beast in hand-to-fin combat—the film ends without appeasing the lizard part of your brain that whispers throughout, insisting this should be more enthralling. You only get so many shots at witnessing Jason Statham stab a shark, and you’d like for it to be more of a home run than this.
To be completely fair, I’m probably unreasonably territorial about this one: not only have I been waiting for The Meg for two decades, but I’ve also engaged in enough shark movie folly for this site that I’d like to be unabashedly enthusiastic about one of these things. Clearly, this is better than most shark movies, especially those in recent memory—it’s just that I’d like to be able to say a little more than that since it doesn’t mean that much. Then again, I can take solace that the streak started with The Shallows back in 2016 is alive and well: in the wake of that and last summer’s 47 Meters Down, The Meg offers further proof that this genre has much more potential beyond being a live-tweeting, hate-watching gag for the latest SyFy/Asylum “effort.”
Indeed, this one is quite respectable, maybe even a little too much so as it tiptoes around those pitfalls: every now and then, you wish The Meg was a little bit more eager to plunge headlong into the deep end instead of playing it safe near the shore. Now that the long wait for it has ended, The Meg seems destined to become another type of fabled project altogether: an exercise in wondering what could have been as we wonder what it might have looked like in the hands of those other filmmakers.
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