What follows is an extended version of a review I originally wrote for Punch Drunk Movies. Music-obsessive that I am, I call these longer reviews my 12-inch mix.
“The Meg” is a movie at odds with itself. It wants to be a self-aware, tongue-in-cheek monster movie, but it also wants to be an emotional…family film? An intriguing notion, but here it’s pulled off without finesse, resulting in a giant shark movie that lacks…ahem…bite.
Jason Statham stars as Jonas Taylor, a rescue diver and captain who, in the film’s opening, leads an ill-fated expedition to rescue the crew of a sunken submarine. He swears a creature big and strong enough to crush the hull of the immense ship caused him to lose half his crew. He’s not believed.
Five years later, Jonas’ ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee), whose character goes no deeper than “Jonas’ ex-wife,” explores the Mariana Trench, the deepest point of the world’s oceans, at the behest of Suyin Zhang (Li Bingbing), an oceanographer working on a state of the art underwater research station, the Mana One, staffed by a rogues gallery of stereotypes.
Suyin theorizes the trench’s “floor” is actually a layer of cold water separating a completely different ecosystem underneath. Lori and her sub crew prove her theory correct, making it through and discovering this new ecosystem–which, sadly looks rather ho-hum due to the film’s murky underwater cinematography and unimaginative special effects—and, unfortunately, also discover a megalodon, the prehistoric, giant shark of the title, which attacks their vehicle, leaving the crew stranded.
All of this, and the only reason Jonas’ ex-wife even exists in the movie, is pure motivation to bring Jonas back from exile, with his rescue attempt somehow leading to the megalodon’s escape…apparently. The relationship between the rescue and the shark’s escape is tenuous at best and a late movie plot-twist muddies that cause and effect even more. Logic is not the film’s strong point.
With the megalodon on the loose, Jonas and the C.O.S (crew of stereotypes) chase after the shark, trying to kill it before it reaches a populated area, all while Jonas and Suyin flirt with each other, their attraction made official only after she sees Jonas’ rock-hard abs (this is a Jason Statham movie, after all) early in the movie.
If logic isn’t a strong point here, neither is telling a coherent story. Once it gets to the shark chasing, it’s pretty straightforward, but before that, yikes. Jonas’ downfall, for example, his belief in the megalodon’s existence and ostracism is clumsily streamlined to the point that it almost doesn’t exist. This becomes a problem when the film keeps referring to his disgrace and redemption when the shark does show up (about 30 minutes in. Ever notice how the first big event in movies always happen at the half-hour mark?) as if it’s really important. And Jonas constantly reiterating, “I told you it was a megalodon,” even though he never actually did, becomes sloppy and irritating. The heavy lifting wasn’t done properly in the film’s exposition to give any of this weight or sense.
The movie is directed by Jon Turteltaub, who has made Disney fare like “The Kid,” and both “National Treasure” movies. He’s a journeyman director, but his personality peeks through here, bringing a family-friendly-ish atmosphere to the movie. The characters seem to care about each other, and the director seems to care about the characters. Touchy feely me liked this. But it is anathema to what the movie is trying to be, what we expect when we hear the words “Giant Shark Movie.”
The dueling tones are best exemplified by the film’s finale, which takes place on a crowded beach in China. (Just how crowded is conveyed with neat overhead shots of countless, multi-colored innertubes, creating a giant, wavy rainbow floating in the ocean). This table setting invites one thing only, Carnage (yes with a capital “C.”). What we get instead is a lot of set-up and very little payoff. The shark chomps a bit and then is lured off by the heroic C.O.S.
Teasing an audience like this and then not committing to it tinkles directly on Anton Chekhov’s gun principle: if you show a gun in the first act, the famous Russian playwright theorized, it better be used by the second. If you’re going to show an ocean full of people, fodder for a giant shark swimming beneath them, they better become chum for that shark. But the movie wusses out on that front. The whole sequence ends before it begins, the director’s family-friendly tendencies not allowing him to go through with it.
There are some fun moments, though. Jonas being towed at high speed by a boat while the shark bears down on him is nicely shot and edited, and the actual finale is fun with a “Phantom Menace”-esque submarine chase and an actual, honest-to-goodness hand-to-hand (hand-to-fin? Mano-a-sharko?) showdown between Jason Statham and the shark. In that moment, the movie actually realizes, for a few seconds at least, its ambitions of ridiculous fun. But it’s too little, too late.
“The Meg” is entertaining enough to catch on a lazy Sunday afternoon on cable and be reasonably satisfied. But it lacks coherence and, worse, spectacle. If your main setting is a fancy research station, it’d be nice to have at least one major action sequence on it.
And while the visual effects are convincing enough to bring the shark to life, there’s no wonder to it. We’re dealing with a 90 foot shark, its size emphasized repeatedly by the characters, but the filmmakers never find a way to relate that immensity visually, even when they have the opportunity to do so. Take, for instance, the myriad helicopters circling the shark action. If you’re going to have this many helicopters skirting the ocean’s surface in a giant shark movie that shark better jump out of the water and take at least one of them down at some point (we meet again, Mr. Chekov). But does this happen? I’ll give you a hint. It doesn’t (spoiler).
The movie ends with a title card that reads “fin.” While I groan-laughed at that joke, the movie just isn’t enough fun to earn that fin.