Cast: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writers: Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber
There are some movies that wear their hearts on their sleeves; you don’t need to see so much as a trailer or a poster to know what you’re getting yourself into. The premise alone, ‘Jason Statham fights a gigantic, prehistoric shark’, tells you everything you could possibly need to know before buying a ticket. It’s exactly the same as hearing ‘The Rock battles three giant mutant monsters’ and ‘Samuel L. Jackson is trapped on a plane overrun with snakes’. The story doesn’t matter. The director doesn’t matter. The supporting cast and the characters they play don’t matter. The only question any prospective viewer needs to ask themselves is, ‘Do I want to watch a hard-as-nails, cockney movie star punch a 50-ft. CGI shark?’ The movie is perfectly aware of this and knows what kind of flick the target audience is going to expect: a dumb, fun B-Movie Jaws. It’s going to be silly, clichéd and over the top. All that remains to be seen is whether it’ll be the right kind of silly, clichéd and over the top.
The set up is promising enough. A marine research facility financed by the smug, Elon Muskish billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) is sending a scouting team to explore the deepest depths of the ocean floor. The vessel is attacked by a very large creature upon arrival, causing them to lose contact with the main base. A rescue operation needs to happen ASAP and there’s only one man who can lead it. Enter Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), a hard-boiled, Jason Stathamish figure who led a similar rescue five years earlier on a wrecked nuclear submarine. He was forced to abandon the operation midway through upon realising that they had been attacked by a giant beast and that it was coming back for them. Those he was able to save were brought back safely but nobody believed him about the underwater monster, instead figuring that he cracked under the pressure. Today the disgraced and cynical Jonas spends his days alone drowning his sorrows with beer. He is approached by his former boss Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao), who asks him to return once again. Jonas refuses but changes his mind when he learns that the captain of the trapped vessel is his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee).
This takes up the first third of the movie and, while some set up is necessary if only to get us from point A to point B, the film (much like last year’s Kong: Skull Island) tests the viewer’s patience by spending too much time on getting all the human characters together, exploring their connections and detailing the ins and outs of marine exploration. We’re introduced to the other members of Zhang’s crew, including his oceanographer daughter and eligible bachelorette (a fact the movie never fails to bring up whenever Jonas notices her) Suyin (Bingbing Li) and her adorable daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai), along with Mac (Cliff Curtis), Jaxx (Ruby Rose) and DJ (Page Kennedy). Even after Jonas submerges his way to the ocean trench where the crew is helplessly stranded, rescues all but one (RIP Hiro Nakamura) and has his second encounter with what turns out to be a Megaladon (Meg for short), an enormous, prehistoric shark thought long extinct, it doesn’t feel like the movie has actually begun until the finned menace emerges at the surface to wreak havoc around the halfway point.
The movies does pick up at this point as we’re treated to a series of man versus shark sequences, one involving one of those shark diving tanks, one involving a collapsing crane and one involving the worst tourism commercial for the Chinese seaside you could possibly imagine. And yet, even with all the PG-13 blood and gore they could get away with and all the craziness Statham is allowed to do, it still never felt like the movie ever soared like it needed to. There are signs that there is a much wilder movie lurking beneath the surface that is being held on a leash. It’s somewhere between the choppy edits that hide the bits that we aren’t supposed to see. It’s written on Statham’s face as he delivers a far grittier and steelier performance than the material seems to warrant. What the movie is essentially trying to build up is this Captain Ahab/Moby Dick battle royale with a bit of Jaws thrown in but it never manages to reach that level in terms of scale, intensity or awesomeness.
Part of the problem is that, for a movie about a giant shark, The Meg doesn’t have very much of the shark in it. That’s fine if your name is Spielberg, you’re a master at crafting suspense and you know exactly how to use your central characters to keep the audience invested and engaged, otherwise it’s a problem. In the first two scenes we get with the Meg, its kept largely obscured by the darkness of the ocean depths and the deliberately unrevealing camera angles. Then when the second half takes off and the real movie starts, the only times we’re allowed a proper look at the man-eating fiend is through jump scares, meaning we’re never even given time to ever take its scale or the threat it poses in. What’s meant to make the Megalodon more threatening than the Great White that took on Brody, Quint and Hooper is its behemoth size, and yet it appears that the movie is largely uninterested in exploring that side of the beast until the very end when it happens upon a densely crowded beach. Until we reach that point and finally get to watch the movie that The Meg should have been from the start, what we get is mostly stilted scenes trying to invest us in character stories that occasionally get interrupted by a mildly thrilling shark attack.
In the middle of it all is Statham, an actor who’s always up for a laugh, taking on the serious role of a man seeking redemption. Statham is usually more at home playing the cheeky, morally ambiguous tough guy who’s forced to turn good, but here he’s playing a noble, heroic character with a little bit of shade who pretty much remains that way all the way through. He commits to the role but does seem a bit lost without anything roguish to do. He shares most of his many non-shark scenes with Li’s Suyin with whom just about everyone in the movie, not least of which her father and daughter and his ex-wife, are determined to ship from the word go. The two share little chemistry (I feel the language barrier may have been a factor here as Li was asked to act in her non-native language) and their romance is one of the many minor subplots that makes you wish the movie would just get back to the shark already. Another such subplot is that of greedy billionaire Jack Morris who is obsessively determined to exploit the carnivorous leviathan for profit. How exactly he plans to do this is about as clear as how the elves in South Park plan to make a profit out of stealing underwear.
The movie’s saving grace is that it has some semblance of personality to it that sets it apart from such forgettable, maritime sci-fi/fantasy thrillers as Battleship and Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge. Much of this has to do with the co-production effort between the Unites States and China, which means that as well as including Chinese actors who stand as titans in their own country but are less well known in Western cinema, the movie also instils some characteristically Chinese values into its story. The sacredness of fatherhood and motherhood are given prominence in Suyin’s relationship with her father and daughter, certain characters express remorse for mistakes that led to mishap and death (unheard of in American blockbusters where seldom a moment is made to contemplate and mourn the loss of life) and the ultra macho Statham is allowed to be warm and tender when talking to little Meiying in a way that a more typically American movie might have deemed too emasculating. These are all story elements that I wish could have been done better if the movie really was intended to be driven more by character than by spectacle the way Jaws was, but their very inclusion is nevertheless welcome in this partly American blockbuster.
The movie’s ultimate failure is that it is neither smart nor dumb enough to be the best version of what it could have been. The movie is self-aware enough of its own absurdity to understand that they have licence to get away with some pretty fantastic and silly things and is at its best when it embraces that fancy. When we reach the climax and are finally allowed to appreciate the sheer size of the Meg and the threat it poses to the thousands of clueless civilians innocently enjoying a nice sunny day at the beach, it sets us up for what is by far the most enjoyable part of the film. A guy tries making a run for it in one of those giant, plastic hamster balls. A tiny, immaculately groomed dog goes for a dip in the ocean and then frantically tries to paddle away from the looming danger. Jason Statham jumps into the sea and takes on the shark one-on-one. There is so much unrealised potential in this movie and so many places where they could have gone further and been even crazier. The Meg too often feels like its being restrained and being forced to suppress its baser instincts rather than free itself to be the movie it really wants to be.