Since my birthday is on August 14th, it is usually a dud weekend for movies. Late in the summer, long after all the good, big-budget blockbusters have come and gone, there is usually a cut-rate cheesy action movie that comes out that week. For a few years in a row, I saw an Expendables movie, just to give you an example of the quality of movies we’re talking about. So this weekend, one of the Expendables alumni, Jason Statham, battles a giant, hungry prehistoric shark. Oh yeah, I’m there.
The Meg (2018)
The Meg is never scary. Not once. But by treating the ludicrous premise seriously, it’s also the funniest movie I’ve seen in years. Every single shark attack is hilarious. The movie takes its time getting started, but about halfway through the movie is pure comedy. I loved it.
I’m a big fan of shark attack movies. There’s some sort of primal fear of sharks, where you’re scuba diving and all of a sudden a large shape cuts off the available light above you. That moment in movies is absolutely terrifying. But very rarely do shark movies capture that fear. I can list all of the movies that do that on just one finger: Jaws. I will give The Meg credit though, it’s the rare shark attack movie that doesn’t just rip-off Jaws. Sure there’s an homage or three, but it’s a shark attack movie that’s not about evil small town bureaucracies refusing to close the beaches. Instead, it’s about Jason Statham, being a bad-ass and going mano-a-sharko versus a 60-foot long, prehistoric, carnivorous fish.
The story is fairly simple. Jason Statham is playing The Transporter on a sub. He’s a taciturn man of action, who doesn’t take crap from anybody. So you know, the Jason Statham character. He fights a giant prehistoric shark. Whenever he’s fighting the shark, it’s terrific. When the characters are safely out of the water, it’s less than terrific. But luckily, they are dumb enough to keep going back into the water.
The movie starts off as Jason Statham is rescuing a sub at the bottom of the ocean. But then the sub is attacked by a mysterious off-camera beastie. So Statham abandons two of his buddies and pilots the sub and several rescued victims back to safety. So he’s kind of a hero, but also kind of an asshole. He’s like 75% hero. Then flash forward five years and there’s an expedition to below “The Philippine Trench” which is even deeper than the Marianas Trench, and apparently has a sub-basement with thermal vents, so it’s all warm and toasty. The movie, and the book it’s based, on speculate that a super-sized shark that’s been extinct for 1.5 million years could theoretically survive down there.
So Five Years Later, a submarine containing an unlikely beautiful blonde sea captain played by a Rebecca Romijn-Stamos look-alike and Hiro Nakamura from Heroes, explores the ocean sub-basement and they are also attacked by an off-screen thingie, and Jason Statham, “the only man who’s successfully rescued people from the bottom of the ocean,” is talked out of his drunken retirement in Thailand to jump back into action.
It’s half an hour into the movie and notice I haven’t used the words “shark” or “megalodon” yet. This is a big problem with the movie. For some reason, director John Turteltaub is playing coy with showing the giant shark. I mean, the damn shark is in the title, and is featured prominently in all of the advertising, but for some reason the plot requires the characters to speculate about what this giant sea monster could possibly be. If I recall on page one of the book, there’s a megalodon attack, so this is a stupid screenwriting decision. Because unlike in Jaws where the Bruce, robot shark failed to work so Spielberg had to avoid showing his monster, The Meg is a pretty neat special effect, so Turteltaub should be proud to show it off, but doesn’t. There’s even a fake out where Li Bingbing is piloting a sub and she gets attacked by a giant squid, but then the squid suddenly expires from being eaten by some enormous but UNSEEN shark-like creature. Hey John Turteltaub, you know what would be really awesome? A prehistoric shark fighting a giant squid. Why didn’t you make that happen in your movie?
But luckily after Jason Statham shows up again, the movie rockets along and gets good as the Meg regularly pops up to eat somebody or something. There’s a particularly fun sequence where Dwight from The Office and the others convince he-man Statham that they really need someone to swim out into the ocean and shoot the shark with a tracking device, then be towed back to safety. “But don’t panic, because the shark is attracted to frantic splashing,” warns tattooed emo oceanographer Ruby Rose. And Jason Statham hums, “just keep swimming, just keep swimming,” as he paddles out to certain doom.
The movie culminates with a terrific homage to Jaws where The Meg attacks a beach in China where several thousand people are frolicking in the ocean, and it’s comedic gold. I won’t spoil it, but one sequence involves a pink-haired Yorkshire terrier named Pippin which needs to be seen to be believed. It’s shot like a horror movie shark attack, including showing the dog’s wee little legs paddling shot from underneath.
Another odd thing about the movie is how unimpressed it is with its own monster. As soon as they see the shark for the first time, Statham immediately knows it’s a megalodon. There’s no scene where they talk about how this extinct Super Shark has a mouthful of 6-inch long, razor-sharp teeth, how they have to eat constantly to survive, and how they went extinct because they ate up all the food that could support a species that large. And how Michael Phelps, the fastest swimming human, tops out at 6 miles an hour and the megalodon probably swam twenty-miles an hour, so you CANNOT GET AWAY. There’s no scene where the 60 foot long shark swims past a submarine, and like a train keeps going by and keeps going by. None of that. And after finding this extinct monster, there’s only token discussion about the scientific significance and trying to preserve it, and instead, Jason Statham immediately jumps to “We need to kill it dead right now” mode.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Meg was everything I had hoped for. The movie is dim-witted with a thoroughly ludicrous story, featuring copious amounts of shark attacks. And because the movie takes it’s nonsense concept seriously, every single attack is hilarious. It’s hard to tell if the movie knows it’s silly, or if it really is just box-of-rocks stupid, but either way it works. Jason Statham is appropriately bad-ass, although since he’s supposed to have bottomed out for five years being drunk, it’s more than a little stretch of the imagination that his muscles are chiseled out of granite and he’s got the cardio conditioning to out-swim a 20 mile an hour shark. So on one hand that’s great, but the movie would’ve been equally interesting if the character were played by say, William H. Macy gone to seed. The premise of the movie is good so either way works.
Sure it could be better, but it would take a Spielberg to build up the aura of awesomeness that this shark deserves. Maybe this will happen in the inevitable Meg 2, coming out my birthday weekend in a couple years from now. But for the most part, it’s as entertaining as you would hope a giant prehistoric shark movie could be. If you are a fan of shark attack movies, this is probably the second best one ever made, albeit with a big disparity between #1 and #2.