Directed by: Jon Turteltaub
Screenplay by: Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber
Starring: Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis
Based on: The Meg (novel) by Steve Alten
Review by: Nick Schofield
Jason Statham is back in the Meg-a (see what I did there?) blockbuster of 2018: The Meg. Big ol’ nasty sharks have been done on-screen before–some more successfully than others, but this film offers a different take. Based on a handful of scientific facts and a now extinct shark that was, up until 2 million years ago, an actual thing that lived on our planet, does The Meg bring the terror or sink to the depths as another blockbuster flop?
*Warning: mild spoilers ahead*
A Toothy Tale
The Meg takes place somewhere on the Marianas Trench out in the western Pacific Ocean. A group of scientists onboard a research station called Mana One are attempting to prove a radical hypothesis–that there’s a hydrogen sulfide sea at the bottom of the trench. During a visit from their billionaire investor Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson), the team attempts to breach the barrier. After the scientists are able to break through the thermocline–a transitional layer between the warm hydrogen sulfide sea and the colder deep ocean water–they are attacked by an unseen animal and become trapped at the bottom.
To get their team out, lead scientists Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao) and Mac (Cliff Curtis) recruit deepwater dive rescuer Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham). Five years prior, a submarine Jonas was attempting to save came under attack from some unseen leviathan. Forced to abandon two of his friends to the depths, Jonas has since retired. Only upon learning that his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) is one of the trapped crew does Jonas agree to help.
During the rescue mission, an explosion breaks open the thermocline long enough for a giant shark–deem by the scientists to be the extinct creature Megalodon–to enter the open ocean. Suddenly, stuff gets h*ckin’ real, and the Mana One crew are now facing the greatest danger to life on the planet. Can they hunt down the Meg in time and save the day? Or will they all become fish food?
The Meg Can Swim
Production-wise, The Meg does pretty well. CGI-heavy films have problems with making sure their computer-generated elements are textured well enough to look believable. This film doesn’t suffer a whole lot on that front. Sometimes the graphics are hokey, but we expect that in blockbusters nowadays. The main concern about “hokeyness” should be its impact on the viewing experience. Better films can build up their other elements so that the unrealistic feeling of hyper-CG scenes and characters is lessened, and The Meg fits that bill–mainly through how it builds tension.
The movie also does well with some of the science it invokes. Ocean floor depressions can sometimes become lakes; these often have higher concentrations of salt, along with trapped hydrogen sulfide. However, typically only bacteria and other extreme life-forms survive there. Using this somewhat-scientific background, the film develops a scenario in which animals could survive and avoid detection by humans.
While we’re on this subject, I want to make something clear: Megalodon is extinct and has been extinct for over 2 million years. While some of the science invoked in this film (on its surface) is sound, it’s still not a possibility that the shark still lives today. Extraordinary circumstances would have to occur for it to have survived out of human sight–more so if reality mirrored what The Meg hashed together to justify itself. This has been a public service announcement.
The Meg also gets some points for its diverse cast. While white men occupy the “rich philanthropist” and “super-savior roles” in the film, their presence is rounded off by a healthy dispersal of women and PoC throughout the film. This partly has to do with the fact that The Meg was a joint collaboration between Chinese and American filmmakers, but the point still stands.
The Rough Seas of Tentpoles and Blockbusters
Anyone who’s watched a Hollywood blockbuster film that certain elements are favored in making the film while others get neglected. Traditionally, a blockbuster/tentpole leans heavily on action and intense CGI as a gimmick to draw and retain audiences. The Meg certainly falls into this category, resulting in some serious flaws in the film–some benign, others wholly problematic.
Issues with character are especially endemic to The Meg. between the utility of certain characters to downright stereotyping. The film is littered with problems and gaps. Relationships between some of the characters, for example, are never fully explained. We learn that Mac and Jonas are chummy (pun intended), but there’s not enough of their background given to explain how, where, and why they became friends in the first place.
Then there are characters like Lori whose sole purpose is to provide justification/a driving purpose for the plot. Jonas is a deep-sea rescue diver, and his ex-wife happens to be a skilled (ex-Navy?) submarine pilot that Mac–in all likelihood–brings onto Mana One (rather than Zhang, the director of the program) because of her skill set. The whole dynamic feels weird, and it plays out weird. If Jonas didn’t have some sort of emotional investment in Lori, there was no way he was going to participate in a deep-sea rescue mission for his friend.
Then, after he rescues Lori, Jonas blows her off for Zhang’s daughter, Suyin (Bingbing Li). I mean, it’s cool, and all that we see a male character rescue an ex-lover not so much for a romantic do-over but rather because he still has an emotional investment in them, but still–was Lori really needed? The same motivation for Jonas could play out if it were a close friend, family member, or otherwise.
Lack of Narrative Weight
The Meg runs real close to two hours long. Blockbuster films do not get that much time to play with, typically. Unfortunately, the film squanders it by prioritizing hyped-up action, a crazy (but awesome) twist, and other confusing/nonsensical plot advances over its characters and narrative depth.
A prime example of this comes when Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor) of Mana One decides to sacrifice himself for another project scientist, Jaxx (Ruby Rose) after they get knocked into the water with the Meg. Heller says something like, “you don’t deserve to die” to Jaxx, then flails around to distract the shark. And, of course, it ends up eating him instead. Now, in any other scenario, this would be a powerful cinematic moment. In The Meg, it feels like it has no meaning whatsoever–that it’s more or less just a thing that happens.
Now, part of me wants to talk about how this is scene is a prime example of the universe’s meaninglessness. However, you can’t do that when discussing stories like this. Moments matter; relationships between characters matter; what is said and what is done matter, all because they serve the story and the plot. The Meg isn’t a nihilistic treatise on the hopelessness of our existence (depending upon how you wish to interpret it)–it’s an archetypal Human-vs-Nature narrative.
Developing the right amount of background and depth to your characters can make this narrative more impactful. This film does not do that. Instead of reveling in Heller’s sacrifice, we end up confused as to why Jaxx deserves to live. Without answers that depth and background, many “heavy” scenes feel empty as a result.
Fuzzy, Fuzzy Background
The Meg starts on the moment where Jonas is forced to abandon his friends in the sub after some leviathan (supposedly the Meg) attacks. From there, we jump to Mana One some five years later. After that, we don’t get much in the way of background exposition that really justifies the film’s raison d’etre. Some things not properly explained include:
- Why Morris funds Mana One in the first place
- Why Morris is so rich (oil tycoon? arms dealer? Bezos-type guy?)
- How the hypothesis for the hydrogen sulfide sea came about
- The team’s confidence in the creature being, in fact, a Megalodon (and not an overgrown white shark)
Now, the matter-of-fact answer to explain all of these is simple: just because. Blockbusters/tentpoles can get away with this minimum amount of reasoning most times. However–in my opinion–it makes for lazy storytelling that’s cynical toward its audience. How to remedy that cynicism is something I can’t speak to, though. It’s up to the filmmakers to ultimately figure that out.
The Meg Blu-ray Special Features:
- Chomp On This: The Making of the Meg
- Creating the Beast
Verdict: Watch It
Honestly, for all of the sins The Meg commits in two hours, it’s a hell of a fun movie to watch. They do such a great job with tension and suspense–in a very Spielbergian way, too–that the payoffs are enjoyable. Sure, it’s no Citizen Kane by a long-shot, but it’s a quintessential summer blockbuster–maybe one of the better ones in the last decade or so. And it’s an original blockbuster, rather than a remake or a sequel or a franchise reboot. In a world where these are increasingly common, films with some new blood are worth sinking your teeth into.