I make no secret of the fact that I think 1975’s JAWS is one of the most perfect pieces of cinema ever stitched together in an editing bay. Even its imperfections add to its perfection. So yeah, I may be a teensy bit biased when it comes to reviewing shark movies, since every shark movie of the last 43 years exists in JAWS’ shadow. Even the occasionally crafty and enjoyable ones (“The Shallows”, for example) don’t truly compare.
“The Meg” wisely doesn’t rock the JAWS boat…it just does a little harmless, drunken dancing up on deck.
**** AHOY! PREHISTORIC SHARK-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD! ****
The fish story.
A navy captain/diver named “Jonas” (get it? Jonas? Jonah & the whale?), played by gravel-voiced British action star Jason Statham, has to make a life or death decision to rescue some crew members from a downed nuclear sub while effectively dooming others, when a giant unseen menace crushes their wrecked submarine like a beer can.
Cut to five years later.
A group of dedicated international oceanic researchers, financed by smarmy billionaire “Morris” (“The Office”’s Rainn Wilson, at his most obnoxious), working in an undersea research station find a ‘thermal barrier’ that leads to an as-yet-undiscovered level of depth on the ocean floor. This new layer of ocean is filled with all kinds of never-before-seen creatures…including a blue whale-sized megalodon shark thought to be extinct for 2 million years (the titular “Meg”). A tiny research sub and its a crew of three, who look like unused casting options from “The Big Bang Theory” ( Jessica MacNamee, Olafur Orrison and Masi Oka from “Heroes”) are stuck below the thermic barrier, and are being stalked by Meg.
So, a trapped submersible and a giant unseen predator. Who ya gonna call? One guess.
Our guy Jonas is living the devil-may-care, cliched life of the ‘failed hero,’ drowning his sorrows in endless beers while putting around Thailand on his little motorcycle. Think “Lethal Weapon”’s Mel Gibson, but with better location scouting. His old buddy “Mac” (played by “Fear the Walking Dead” alum Cliff Curtis) comes to fetch him. Turns out the good-looking woman stuck with the two cliche nerds in the submersible is none other than Jonas’ ex-wife Lori.
Jonas is then whisked to the station, where he is introduced to beautiful, conveniently-divorced scientist “Suyin” (Bingbing Li) and her scene-stealing daughter “Meiying” (played by an unapologetically adorable Shuya Sophia Cai). Jonas’ five-year old ‘crazy story’ of a giant predator is soon proven to be true, as Jonas saves two of the three lives from the submersible while having to allow “Toshi” (Masi Oka) to sacrifice himself.
This movie is so predictable you could set an atomic clock to it, but no matter…
In short order, Suyin is immediately attracted to rugged rescuer Jonas (especially after he greets her fresh from taking a shower, wearing extra macho spray), and her cute-as-hell kid joins in to play matchmaker (even Jonas’ ex is cool with it).
There are a few more predictable jumpout ‘scares’ as Meg terrorizes the station, but soon the action is transferred to the open sea, as the group evacuates the station. Morris does a Paul Reiser/Carter Burke on the group; lying to them with a promise of destroying Meg while attempting to keep the discovery as an exclusive (please don’t ask me why…this movie falls apart like wet tissue paper under the teensiest bit of scrutiny).
Several lost crewman and a trashed vessel later (shades of JAWS’ Orca), the group kills the Meg… or rather, one of two Megs. In a ‘surprise’ twist, a second Meg is revealed (the movie effectively houses its own sequel within its 113 minute running time). Meg 2 is headed to the Chinese coast for a tasty smorgasbord of swimmers from a particularly crowded beach.
Soon the JAWS homages come fast and loose; a dog named “Pippen” (yes, just like the poor doomed mutt in JAWS) jumps off of a boat to its owner’s panic. A young boy whines to his beach-planted mother that he wants to go out in the water for ‘a little longer’ (shades of JAWS’ Alex Kintner), and so forth. None of it screams ‘ripoff’ so much as affectionate homage. At least writer Steve Alten (the movie is based on his 1997 novel, believe it or not) and director Jon Turtletaub (“Phenomenon” “National Treasure”) have the good sense to tip their hat to the classic, rather than vainly attempt to usurp it.
The climax sees Jonas and Suyin square off in mini subs against the beast, in a climax that is somewhere between Melville’s “Moby Dick” and SyFy’s “Sharknado”; all done with tongue firmly in cheek.
Summing it up.
The characters in “The Meg” are essentially walking-talking cliches for their respective actors to have a little fun with. To the cast’s considerable credit, the actors play their assigned cliches for all their worth; with enough charm and aplomb to make the material work far better than it has any right to.
So, armed with a charming international cast, an appropriately campy tone, and considerable Chinese financing, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if this movie makes a boatload of cash. The theatre I saw it in was fairly crowded for a Saturday morning, and the kids in the seats nearby were effectively eating it up (excuse the pun); laughing at every groan-inducing one-liner, and gasping at all the right jump-scare moments.
“The Meg” is silly and unabashedly dumb, but it’s also smart enough not to aspire to be anything greater than that. The movie is less about the art of moviemaking and more about the science of crowd-pleasing. Take a big CGI-leviathan, mix with exotic oceanic locations, add an attractive, appealing international cast with appropriate overseas financing and voila! Instant moneymaker. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if we see five or more “Meg” movies in the years ahead.
If they were still fashionable, I’d say “The Meg” is exactly the kind of movie that drive-in theatres were made for… a 21st century update of the 1950s B-monster movie.