You have to have admire the pecularily Hollywood kind of confidence it takes to make a large-budget shark movie these days. I mean, there are plenty of ferocious predecessors that are really, really good (Jaws, Open Water, The Shallows) and the countless more that are not much better than lukewarm chum (looking at SyFy and a certain movie about tornadoes). So, if you try to make a good movie, the bar is pretty high, and if you are shooting for schlock . . . why bother?
Even so, The Meg arrives in theaters on the back of a decent marketing campaign, a $15o million budget, and A-list action star Jason Statham. Throw in a PG-13 rating and you’ve got some serious tentpole-feature gambling happening here. Not quite the sort of thing that sinks studios, but close enough. Hey, audiences might be getting tired of Star Wars and Marvel, so maybe a giant shark movie is just the thing we collectively need.
Well, I don’t know about you, but I am all in for a movie about a giant prehistoric shark relentlessly chewing its way toward shore. Throw in some classic sci-fi tropes and Toho-style sermonizing and I am there with a bucket of popcorn and a grin. Happily, The Meg kept that grin going for most of its running time.
The plot is nothing new, of course, but that’s now what you are dropping your summer cash for. Jonas Taylor (Statham) is the world’s best undersea-rescue guy, but he is troubled by the memories of a rescue that was thwarted by a mysterious and unbelievable encounter. When his ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee), is stranded on a deep sea research sub, he is pulled out of drunken retirement to pull her from the murky deep. I’m sorry if that is a spoiler, but really? You didn’t really expect them to spend $15o millions dollars so we could watch Jason Statham have a Leaving Las Vegas moment on a Thai beach, did you? Yes, as one of the crew brilliantly observes, “There is something out there!”
Yes, the poster didn’t lie. This is the part where we get to the giant prehistoric shark unleashed by the arrogance of man to wreck havoc on a world that it has forgotten about it for millions of years. I hope that isn’t a surprise, either. What is surprising about The Meg is how well made it is. Interestingly, it’s good because director Jon Turteltaub (Cool Runnings, National Treasure) clearly had no illusions about making the next Jaws and no desire to make the next entry into the Sharktopus filmography. For the most part it is a breezy bit of genre action that keeps moving and never gets too heavy. The few scenes where it does get serious are mercifully brief. They feel obligatory, because our action hero needs to have that troubled past, and neither the cast or the script really get much better than perfunctory.
Monster-movie fans will find many familiar things in this, and that’s fine, because the film feels self-aware and absent of any other aspirations. An above-average amount of screen time passes before we actually see that titular creature, and an even longer time before the bodies start piling up, but patience will be rewarded once that fin breaks water. There are plenty of jump scares and action suspense to keep you watching, and the film thwarts many expectations even as it seems to head directly for the predictable. This is a fine balancing act, and Turteltaub pulls it off.
The megalodon earns its pay in every CGI scene it’s in. There’s plenty of well-shot and choreographed action that shows us some new shark moves in addition to the gaping maw and fin-in-the-water shots we’ve all come to watch for. Jason Statham fans will not doubt be thrilled that he even manages some hand-to-fin physical combat both above and below the water. You won’t see that in Fast and Furious.
The Meg is, in the end, a bit like a shark: it’s built for one thing, and it does that one thing very well. Just don’t ask it to offer much in the way of emotional payoff or development. After all, it’s just the largest primordial predator in the world. Giant sharks don’t really need to be any more complicated than that.