It’s been long overdue for director Jon Turteltaub to escape from National Treasure-purgatory, and he does so with The Meg, a deep sea horror picture pitting Jason Statham against a monstrous prehistoric shark. Through Warner Bros. Pictures and Chinese investors, Turteltaub succeeds in adapting the novel Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror to life with a film that could have been something more, but is ultimately entertaining for its run time.
When Jaws had its initial theatrical release in 1975, it not only revolutionized the summer blockbuster, it also set such a high standard for the natural horror subgenre, that all the other films centered around a killer shark have always came up short in comparison. Deep Blue Sea is a dated and mostly forgettable entry, save for a death scene midway through its second act that’s hilarious for its absurdity; meanwhile, The Shallows would take the genre for an upturn in 2015 through a character-driven story crafted with well-directed suspense and a strong lead performance, only for the killer shark genre to fall back into B-movie territory two years later with 47 Meters Down. With the help of Chinese investing and journeyman Jon Turteltaub at the helm, Warner Bros. Pictures comes out with The Meg, an adaptation of the best-selling Steve Alten novel Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, and the film aims to pit man versus predatory fish with a balance of a serious tone evidenced by the arc of its main character along with a cheesy sense of humor, and does so with entertaining, if inconsistent results.
The Meg begins with diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) on a mission to save a group of scientists from his submarine that’s been through a massive shark attack. Jonas saves a majority of the crew, but to win the race against the predator behind the destruction, he elects to leave the men that remain behind to avoid compromising the lives of everyone already rescued. While Jonas’s ensuing anxiety compels him to swear off from diving, an eclectic team of researchers at Mana One, a state-of-the-art ocean research facility owned by clueless billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson), discover the ocean floor as a stream of gas that can be penetrated by an ocean craft, and assign a small team of divers to explore the realm below the bottom of the ocean. Unfortunately, the crew finds themselves in way over their heads once they come face-to-face with all 75 feet of the titular prehistoric megalodon shark. Long thought to have been extinct, the megalodon attacks their craft on sight, and it’s up to Jonas and the Mana One researchers to not only rescue the divers, but also stop the megalodon’s ceaseless path of destruction before it goes any further.
The crew aboard Mana One consists of a diverse ensemble of character actors: with perfect timing to the news of her casting as Batwoman, Ruby Rose gets to showcase her action chops here as Jaxx Herd, the station’s resident techie, while Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao) and his daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing), as well as James ‘Mac’ Mackreidies (Cliff Curtis) are supervisors to spearhead the mission, Lori (Jessica MacNamee) is there as Jonas’s ex-wife, and DJ (Page Kennedy) provides the comic relief. The cast is eclectic and talented, yet they’re given one-dimensional characters labeled by their respective trope while in the lead, Statham’s Jonas has the most complete arc: like Jonah before him, he goes after the aquatic behemoth before him with the intention of conquering his very fears of it. However, audiences in line for this movie won’t be seeing it to peel back the layers of three-dimensional archetypes or ruminate over ideas about the human condition; they’ll be seeing it for the suspenseful adventure and underwater thrills. From those aspects, does The Meg deliver? Well, yes and no.
The Meg does a really good job of creating atmosphere and building tension, especially in the first act. After the researchers marvel in wonder as they observe the world beneath the bottom of the ocean, the small crafts deployed from Mana One are isolated by an abyss of water that turns darker shades of blue the further they travel as the creatures they encounter grow bigger in size. A particularly creative moment comes after Jonas has retrieved something from the water, the camera assumes his point of view as he clears his vision while scanning his surroundings only to discover the Megalodon coming right for him in an effective jump scare.
Meanwhile, the film’s sense of humor is a mixed bag, but it creates genuine laughter when it’s on point, especially when the researchers deliver sarcastic snark at each other before and during the action sequences. More consistent moments of levity can be found when Jonas interacts with Suyin’s daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai), who tells him stories about her mother’s previous marriage with hilarious results. It’s worth noting that despite some repetitive beats, the action sequences are consistently suspenseful and entertaining throughout, in part thanks to great visual effects that create a shark built from CGI that’s realistic-looking enough without appearing cartoonish.
But what hinders The Meg as a movie is exactly that from the standpoint of content: thanks to a PG-13 rating, it walks so long on a tightrope between the lines of dour seriousness and B-movie camp, that it can’t pick a side. Granted, nothing else needs to reach the ridiculousness of the Sharknado franchise, but for a natural horror movie about a team of ocean experts on the track of a giant prehistoric shark, there’s boatloads of terror to be felt if the water turned red with the remains of the megalodon’s victims, and more opportunity to inhabit the minds of the characters as they shout obscenities at the nightmare of their conflict against nature, or share relief of surviving an action set piece by the skin of their teeth. Sadly, the majority of blood to be found comes from the megalodon itself. Meanwhile, Statham himself has made a career elevating the best and worst B-action movies with his charisma, but here, the film cuts away from him and the Mana One crew just frames before they can express fear in the form of a curse word. What’s in the end product of The Meg are the seeds for something truly terrifying and engaging, but they’re barely watered in favor of an adventure for the whole family. It’s noble with its intentions, but creates a neutered story all the same.
While the cast does well with the material they’re given, it’s Bingbing that sadly sticks out like a sore thumb. In her third English-language blockbuster, she delivers a wooden performance as the counterpart to Statham’s character, i.e. the woman who’s better at his job than Jonas himself. It’s also worth noting that when the humor misses, it strikes out entirely: in a shark movie as tame as this, an early scene where two grown men chuckle and repeat the word, ‘penetration’ to each other after a team leader uses it in professional conversation is surface-level humor and falls flat as a whole.
Overall, despite toning down on all the materials it bestowed for a return to campy, B-movie shlock on the big screen, The Meg is still entertaining for its run time thanks to a diverse cast that does well with the material given, the action sequences are entertaining, and the underwater worlds are as cool to look at as they are unsettling. There’s something to enjoy from it if you’re a big fan of the shark attack subgenre, even if it doesn’t have as big a bite that it could have had.