I was hoping that The Meg would be a good dose of big, dumb, late-summer fun, and for the most part it is. It definitely has size-the titular prehistoric shark is big enough to devour humpback whales (note the plural ). And it is genially, inoffensively dumb, often in a self-parodic, wink-wink, we know-this-is-silly kind of way, albeit without nose-diving into Sharknado territory. Unfortunately, it is not nearly as fun as it probably ought to be, partially because it makes the near-fatal mistake of taking some of its plot strands and character developments way too seriously, as if anyone is going to care about various strained relations and interpersonal conflicts when there's a massive set of jaws unleashed from the bottom of the ocean roaming about. The Meg lacks the decisive nastiness and commitment to absurdity that turned Renny Harlin's Deep Blue Sea (1999)-a movie I admittedly failed to fully admire when I first saw it-into such a compulsively re-watchable cult classic. And let's not even bother comparing it to Jaws (1975), although serious shark movie aficionados will recognize a major plot point that has been lifted from Jaws 3-D (1983).
Based on the best-selling 1997 novel by Steve Alten, The Meg has been in some stage of development for pretty much all of the past two decades. Let's just say that Jan de Bont-remember him?-was originally slated to direct as his follow-up to his first two films, Speed (1994) and Twister (1996) (he instead ended up making Speed 2: Cruise Control, which began his downward spiral). The project finally got made as an American-Chinese coproduction, which explains why half of the cast is Chinese and the climactic attack on a crowded beach is off the Chinese coast instead of San Diego, as in the book. The film is still anchored, of course, by a Hollywood leading man (some things never change), in this case Jason Statham, who lets his flinty blue eyes, perfectly curved skull, bulging neck muscles, and throaty British growl do the heavy lifting as Jonas Taylor, a deep-sea rescue expert who has a bad run-in with the unseen titular shark in the film's opening sequence. This encounter results in the death of several people, a tragedy for which he is blamed and that sends him packing into inebriated exile in Thailand.
Meanwhile, a goofball billionaire named Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) has spent $1.3 billion funding a massive offshore research facility run by Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao) and his oceanographer daughter Suyin (Bingbing Li), who keeps her precocious 8-year-old daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai) around to ensure that at least one child will regularly be in danger. Dr. Zhang and Suyin send a deep-sea submersible six miles under the surface to explore the possibility that what they thought was the ocean floor is actually just a thermocline cloud of hydrogen sulfide that separates the ocean above from an entirely unexplored ecosystem below. Is anyone surprised that the bottom is not actually the bottom and that the real bottom harbors some previously thought extinct monstrosities? Is Meg short for Megalodon? The submersible is piloted by Lori (Jessica McNamee), who happens to be Jonas's ex-wife, and when the titular shark bangs it around a little and leaves it stranded on the ocean floor with dwindling oxygen, Jonas is called back to duty, even though the research facility's on-board physician, Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), was involved in his earlier brush with the Meg and was responsible for his being blamed for the deaths that ensued.
As with virtually all science fiction-horror hybrids, it is humanity's noodling around where they don't belong-in this case, the darkest depths of the ocean-that unleashes the terror, which the characters then spend the rest of the movie trying to corral and kill. There are a few isolated nods toward some kind of thematic depth-one character bemoans humanity's tendency to want to kill whatever it discovers-but it's little more than lip service to fill in the gaps. Unlike, say, Spielberg's Jurassic Park (1993), which was genuinely interested in the essence and dangers of scientific hubris, The Meg is a tried-and-true monster movie with little on its mind other than carnage (it is surprisingly restrained in keeping its many-toothed behemoth off-screen for as long as possible, though).
There are a few chilling bits, including our first glimpse of the beast, floating silently in shadow outside the glass of one of the research facility's underwater corridors, but it isn't long before the chaos is unleashed and the Meg is leaping from the water, sinking boats, consuming characters whole, and threatening the life of a desperately swimming Yorkie. Somewhere in there the screenwriting team of Dean Georgaris (The Brave) and brothers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (Battleship, RED) wants us to believe that there is a growing romance between Jonas and Suyin, but then the Meg rears its ugly head and we're off to the races again. Plenty of quips and one-liners, a few narrative surprises, and lots of shark mayhem ensues, but director Jon Turtletaub (National Treasure, The Sorcerer's Apprentice) gives it all such a rote sheen of familiar polish that you might find yourself wishing that The Meg were a truly bad movie rather than just a competently mediocre one.
Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Warner Bros.
Overall Rating: (2.5)
Get a daily dose of New York Telegraph news through our daily email, its complimentary and keeps you fully up to date with world and business news as well.