Like the prehistoric Megalodon, shark films were long extinct from theatres until the modest successes of The Shallows and 47 Meters Down resurrected them a couple years back. The primordial terror of Ghost Shark aside, the aughts were a dearth of dorsal fin destruction, and cinema was in its death throes because of it. Now, the shark revitalization crescendos and faces abrupt extinction (if box-office predictions are to be believed) with Jon Turteltaub’s The Meg, a massive-budgeted Jason Statham vehicle that spent a decade in production limbo. It’s an acceptable slice of summer commercialism without the bite (haha) of quality schlock.
Full disclosure: Aquatic creature features are low-hanging fruit for me, thus I’m an easy target for a movie where Jason Statham fights an 80-foot shark for half its runtime. The Meg begins with a suspense-free prologue where hardcore rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Statham, playing himself per usual) saves a group of scientists from an attack by an unknown predator. Despite the cunning heroics, he’s forced to abandon the ship and several crew members are left behind. Statham is overcome with guilt and professionally ruined, and retreats to a Thai beach to pound Coronas and look mildly disheveled in a bucket hat.
There wouldn’t be a movie if The Stath wasn’t forced to come out of retirement and settle his deeply personal score with a fish, and when he’s told a few marine biologists are trapped at the deepest regions of the ocean, he’s adamant in his refusal to help. That changes when he learns one of the endangered crew includes … his ex-wife. Of course, the following rescue mission doesn’t go off as planned, and the resulting chaos unleashes a ravenous Megalodon into human-infested waters.
That’s a mercifully sparse description of The Meg’s first act, as it’s strangely lethargic. Look, I don’t expect or even want a giant-shark flick from the director of 3 Ninjas to waste precious minutes developing a group of stock characters no one cares about. So don’t spend such a significant amount of time subjecting us to your lazy script’s laborious setup when we could be watching a Megalodon splurge on unsuspecting beachgoers.
Turteltaub recklessly tries to take a page out of Jaws by withholding the Megalodon from the audience for a baffling amount of time, which is absurd given the marketing is wall-to-wall images enticing you with the size of the antagonist. It’s nearly unforgivable until ol’ Meg shows her face.
The moment our gilled friend arrives, however, things pick up considerably. The next two acts of The Meg become nonstop Stath-versus-shark action and mostly deliver on the goods promised by the delightful trailer. If the image of a tough-as-nails Brit trying to stab what is essentially a dinosaur shark in the face does not bring you a rush of endorphins, then stop reading this immediately and visit a psychiatrist. Although the film doesn’t quite live up to the potential of its cheeky marketing campaign, plenty of hapless folks are devoured in commendable PG-13 fashion. Ultimately, this will fade from your memory within the week; still, it slightly surpasses plenty of the subpar tentpoles released this summer.
What keeps the shark mayhem from achieving greatness is what I’ve dubbed Dwayne Johnson Syndrome. Make no mistake: I love Johnson, but he chooses starring roles in movies that should be exuberant pieces of exploitation and end up getting bogged down by overly polished and generic filmmaking. These blockbusters lack the craft to reach the heights of even modern-day Spielberg or the humility to dive head-first into irreverent trash. What you’re left with is something far less compelling than either of those.
Take, for example, a brief scene where Meg is let loose on a beach party. Yes, we get some superb shots of an 80-foot shark swimming beneath clueless vacationers on floaties, but the carnage amounts to a handful of people thrashing and disappearing under a wave before we see a CG fin slink beneath the surface.
In 2015, it was announced that horror filmmaker and noted gorehound Eli Roth would direct The Meg. Unsurprisingly, he left the project once Warner Bros. informed him that the film couldn’t be rated R. As a fellow B-movie enthusiast, I can’t help wishing we got to see this titular shark in his full, gruesome glory. Turteltaub may have benefitted from taking a page out of Roth’s book.