The Meg (2018)

Directed by Jon Turtleltaub

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The Meg is a movie about Jason Statham, and a giant shark, that’s all you need to know.  It’s campy, exciting and gets a little cynical (people brutally, quickly killed) before it gets romantic and sappy (when the shark is inevitably killed, and the heroes put their arms around each other), in other words having its cake and eating it too.

Everyone in this movie is attractive, even the unattractive ones.  It’s like they started out with Jason Statham and other actors defying the aging process, then preserved them in milk or told them to gain just enough wait and grow just enough of a beard to pass as an ordinary looking person.  They ham it up in their respective roles, populating the spectrum between hero (Statham) and villain (Rainn Wilson).  The other characters will be defined by things like their ability to smolder, look snarky, cast judgment or make us empathize with them in under a minute of screen time just so that they can be killed by the giant shark.

The hero in all of this is Jonas Taylor (Statham).  He’s a deep sea diver who fails to save the lives of many of his friends in the movie’s prologue.  After this failure (in which he neglects the relative success of saving other people’s lives) he hides out in Thailand, drinking beer and suntanning all day but apparently fitting in anywhere between four and eight hours of working out each day.

Taylor will be approached by the crew of an impressive, futuristic station deep in the ocean about rescuing scientists (I think they’re scientists) stuck deep below the sea.  He will resist, of course, saying something along the lines of “I’m too old for this sh*t” or “I failed before, so how could I possibly succeed this time” or “though I struggle to verbalize it, I have far too much guilt about the people I couldn’t save last time.”  Then they say something or other which convinces him to come along, as anticipated.

Taylor single-handedly pilots a vessel to deep within the ocean, past a previously untouched layer below which live giant sea monsters like the Megalodon, a giant f*ckin’ shark.  He will save two of the three scientists stuck down there (poor Masi Oka, I was just getting excited for him since it had been so long since Heroes), so once again he does something uniquely heroic only to be tormented by the guilt of not saving everyone.

When Taylor and company return to the station they open up a momentary rift in that previously untouched layer deep in the earth.  This allows the Megalodon to swim through and soon wreak havoc on the poor people and marine life above.

The rest of the story follows a limited cast of characters on a boat, attempting to recklessly hunt the giant shark.  They seem to have poor memories and thus are ripe for the picking.  This dynamic does allow for a few thrilling, even if easy, scares and sequences.  The main point of interest in all of this, it seems to me, is to figure out what we would do to stop a giant shark.

They will use helicopters, machine gunfire, bombs, etc. to attempt to destroy this thing, but there seems to be a lack of creativity here.  I’m not sure exactly what I would do, but The Meg should be more fun.  It’s only in the third act when there seems to be a more original, if logic-defying, action set piece.  That’s when we will finally see Taylor do Jason Statham things and fight the shark himself, which is what people who will see this movie surely want to see.

There is far too much time spent on the grieving process (because the movie never establishes or develops these characters enough to make us care) and people reacting with horror to the thing we already know exists, far before they do.

So that’s the thing I hate most about movies like this.  We know it’s a giant shark movie with Jason Statham, so we know where it’s going to do and how it will end.  That means the only real surprise is how a movie like this introduces the antagonist.  For the most part these movies, including Rampage or something like last year’s Geostorm, take too long setting up the characters and teasing the CGI spectacle which is the sole reason for the movie’s existence.  Just get into it.

The characters are always the same, to some degree.  They are heroic, cowardly, attractive, funny, snarky or brooding.  They are based more in character tropes and remixes of past movies than anything original, so a movie like this should own it and get on with it much more quickly.  We only need to see Rainn Wilson, for example, do or say one selfish thing to know what he’s all about.

The Meg is a fine ridiculous movie, but the more I think about it the more I think the greatest sin for a movie like this is to be boring.  It’s not going to be particularly dramatic or funny (it’s always watered down, pun maybe intended), and we’re not going to care too much about what these characters are up against because it’s so absurd from the get go.  So with that all that in consideration, it should just be fun.

The only other thing I can think of here is that The Meg and movies like them feel too cynical.  They take joy in the carnage, and hey there is joy in such destruction, but the movie doesn’t bother to make the shark anything more than a predator.  At one point the movie shows us the wreckage of a boat of poachers who capture sharks, cut off their fins, then leave them to die.  The characters suggest that the shark has gotten revenge, thus implying there is some sense of motive here, which of course there isn’t.  For the rest of the movie the shark is just a hungry predator who needs to eat a lot.

The concept is insane, but the story is conventional.  It could go either way and make the Megalodon a full on character, like the revenge-seeking “Predator” or it could make it just a normal shark which happens to be big.

The former carries themes of man’s ego and greed, suggesting that the antagonist is a direct result of us doing things we have no right to do and going places that should remain untouched.  In The Predator this creature was thought to be the personification (or alien-ification) of the forest and indirectly commented on 80’s era U.S.-led covert operations in third would nations.

The latter, such as in Jaws, leaves options for other thematic ideas.  The monster is a natural occurrence, so it could be a humbling reminder of humanity’s place in the world or on the food chain.  It could also be an opportunity to focus on the rift between differing lines of thinking in terms of how to deal with the monster.  In Jaws there was conflict between the chief of police and the mayor about whether to close the beaches on such an important, tourist-attracting holiday.  In The Meg there is no such balance of authority and thus no such conflict.

The Meg is mano-a-mano, Jason Statham and the shark.  Rainn Wilson’s character is the most villainous as a result of being the richest (so there is some subtext here about those with money not being responsible), but he is killed off not far past the midpoint of the movie from what I recall.  This vacuum leaves Jonas Taylor as the only authority figure, meaning the only conflict is between human and shark, whether or not they’re winning.

There is no conflict between Taylor and the people around him about how to deal with the shark, at least no conflict of substance.  There might be someone else saying we should do something else, but those plans quickly dissolve, and there’s never any strong suggestion that Taylor’s plan might be incorrect.  We know to trust him.

That’s because Taylor is masculine in all the conventional ways.  He’s strong and in command, and when you cast Statham that’s what you get.  The movie could play it differently and find a way to have the hero be someone who struggles to convince others to follow him into battle, like the Casey Affleck character in 2016’s The Finest Hours.  He had to try and keep a sinking ship afloat while his crew actively and openly loathed and distrusted him.  This gave him a stronger, more impactful character arc.

The Meg, however, is just Jason Statham versus a giant shark, which is fine, but the movie takes too long to deliver what the premise and movie trailer promise.

Up Next: Upgrade (2018), The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018), Burning (2018)

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