REVIEW – ‘The Meg’

The U.S. summer movie season is finally winding down. And, as always, we’re subjected to several films dumped in August in the hopes of squeezing a few more box office dollars from weary cinemagoers already exhausted from another period of mindless blockbusters. There’s probably no blockbuster this year quite as dumb as The Meg, a movie which pits reliable action bro Jason Statham against a gargantuan prehistoric shark. It’s a brainless piece of fluff and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that but only if the movie itself knows it.

While its campy, jokey trailers and posters may portray a delicious sense of self-awareness, The Meg ultimately fails to live up to its advertising. The Warner Bros. marketing team may have deemed this to be a silly film, but it doesn’t seem as if anyone working on the actual production were on the same page. The film consistently takes itself so damn seriously, making it rather difficult to elicit any experience of fun from its audience. In saying that, you still get what you came for. Statham vs. megalodon. Beast vs. beast. And maybe that’s enough.

Beginning with a flashback prologue, Statham plays Jonas Taylor, a U.S. Navy officer turned deep-sea rescue aficionado called upon to perform a dangerous rescue mission on an ailing submarine in distress. When something outside the vessel begins rapidly destroying it, Jonas is forced to make a rash decision to save the few souls he can. Back above the sea, naturally, no one believes Jonas’ tale of a monster creature lurking in the depths and he’s blamed for the deaths of those he left behind, causing him to flee to Thailand to live in drunken exile.

Five years later, an elaborate underwater research facility known as Mana One is gearing up for their first daring deep-sea exploration, 200 miles off the coast of China. Financed by eccentric billionaire Jack Morris (a horribly miscast Rainn Wilson), the team of scientists are intent on proving their theory that a section of the Marianas Trench is actually a freezing cold layer of gas, hiding a secret lair filled with an ecosystem of exotic sea creatures. In a twist of fate, the pilot leading the first exploratory mission is Jonas’ ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee, who is 20 years Statham’s junior, but whatever). Gee, I hope nothing happens to her.

Unsurprisingly, the vessel is also violently attacked by the same mysterious creature Jonas once encountered, leaving Lori and her crew stranded on the bottom of the ocean. Just before the sub loses communication with Mana One, Lori blurts out “Jonas was right!” before the line goes dead. With this vital clue in hand, it’s up to head scientist Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao) and Jonas’ old buddy Mac (Cliff Curtis) to convince the washed-up rescuer to head back underwater to save Lori and her beleaguered colleagues.

Sobering up in mere moments, it’s not long before Jonas is heading back down to the ocean’s depths, along with the help of Zhang’s oceanographer daughter, Suyin (Li Bingbing). But the mission has unfortunate consequences when the “Meg,” a 75-foot prehistoric long-thought-extinct shark, follows Jonas back through the wormhole he’s created in the layer of gas which kept this species hidden for the last few million years. Good one, pal. After being kept from the modern world for so long, the Meg is hell-bent on causing all sorts of chaos.

In actuality, the poor creature is probably just desperately trying to be left alone so it can find its way back home. But the beast has to be the villain of a piece like this, and it’s up to Statham and co. to destroy the ginormous shark before it heads towards Sanya Bay, a coastal resort full of hapless floating potential victims. Dun dun duuuuun. Along for the ride are tech-girl Jaxx (an underused Ruby Rose), wise-cracking engineer DJ (Page Kennedy), anti-Jonas adversary Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), and Suyin’s adorable eight-year-old daughter, Meiying (a scene-stealing Shuya Sophia Cai).

This exhaustively complicated narrative is one of the biggest issues with The Meg. The film spends a good 40 minutes explaining the science and technical details behind its plot. Meanwhile, the audience is desperate to just see this damn shark for what it is. It may be attempting to take a leaf out of the Jaws handbook of keeping the monster hidden to arouse suspense, but Spielberg’s gold standard of shark movies gave us plenty of heart-stopping moments while we awaited our first glimpse of the creature. All we get here are two mysterious assaults from an unseen entity that’s doing nothing more than chomp on the sides of some submarines.

The Meg kills far too much time desperately attempting to get its audience to care about Jonas’ character journey and the forced burgeoning romance between the weathered rescuer and the beautiful Asian oceanographer who has taken a shine to him for no apparent reason. Well, Sunyin does witness Jonas fresh from the shower in nothing more than a towel, so that’s probably enough motivation right there. At 51, a shirtless Statham is still a sight to behold. The entire first act painfully attempts suspense by keeping the audience guessing as to what giant monster could be causing all this destruction. But we’ve seen the poster and the trailer. We know what it is. It’s in the title of the film, after all. Just give it to us already.

Once the film finally gets going, there are some incredibly entertaining setpieces, particularly one terrifying sequence involving a cylindrical plastic shark cage and the film’s bombastic finale, which is as batshit crazy as you can imagine. And there’s one mammoth surprise moment that is genuinely applause-inducing. No spoilers here, but when it happens, you’ll know it. The shark’s first appearance outside Mana One where little Meiying literally comes face-to-face with the monster is also wonderfully crafted. However, if you’ve seen the trailer, unfortunately, any semblance of surprise in this moment is entirely lost.

But the fatal flaw of The Meg is its failure to embrace the absurdity and ridiculousness of its existence. As awful as something like Sharknado may be, at least it’s entirely self-aware and completely runs with the insanity of its premise. The Meg takes itself a little too seriously to veer into the territory of fun lunacy this kind of monster film can provide. When the shark heads towards hordes of blissfully unaware swimmers floating in Sanya Bay, you get the sense a colossal sequence is coming featuring plenty of mayhem and chaos. For whatever reason, the film refuses to take advantage of this prospect, and the shark does very little damage at all. It’s a setup with no payoff, leaving a disappointed taste in your mouth.

This may relate to the bizarre decision to keep this film to a PG-13 rating. There’s very little blood and gore here, with most of the deaths taking place off-camera or subjected to a quick editing cut before we see any real chomping. There’s actually a surprising amount of whale gore than there is human. For a film about a giant killer shark, there’s very little time spent with the shark killing anyone. No one is coming into this for the humans, but we’re forced to spend far more time with them than we want. The end result is a film that’s surprisingly dull and almost teetering on boring. It’s being painted as a monster thriller, but there’s few thrills and barely any monster.

As for the cast, well, we all know they’re fairly superfluous to a film like this. But since we’re subjected to endless human interactions and long-winded conversations, the performances of the cast have to come under critique. Statham can play this kind of role with his eyes closed, and he provides a great hero to root for. Had the film embraced more of the fun side, his performance could have been elevated further. We’ve seen him do phenomenal tongue-in-cheek humour in something like Spy. He would have nailed that kind of angle here, if given the opportunity. But he’s provided nothing more than being the brawny tough guy with a heart of gold, which is a character he plays well, so it’s far from a disappointment.

The supporting cast tries their best to keep the film on track. Kennedy gets the best lines and gives the film some much-needed levity. Wilson is perfectly entertaining until his character takes a motivation U-turn, which feels entirely contrite and inauthentic from someone as likeable as this actor. Rose is a highlight, but she’s so sparingly used and deserves better than this. At one point, she’s saddled with the damsel in distress position, which is so out-of-place for such a gutsy performer. She’s shown her capability and flair for action. It’s a genuine shame she’s not given the freedom to display her true grit here. A missed opportunity to atone for in the obligatory sequel that’s likely coming.

Bingbing tries her utmost in an English-speaking performance, but she’s unfortunately out of her element outside her native tongue and the end result is a little wooden. And Cai is downright adorable as the film’s mandatory cute kid character. She steals focus whenever she’s on screen and it’s hard not to adore her, even if you’re not particularly a kid person. But it is a little strange to have an eight-year-old tag along on a mission to destroy a menacing and volatile 75-foot prehistoric shark. Parenting 101 – don’t bring your child to work when it involves deep-sea exploration of an unknown area of this planet.

With a couple of cheeky nods to Jaws (take notice of a hapless dog’s name), a few interesting visuals, and some somewhat-entertaining moments, The Meg is big, dumb fun but not nearly big or dumb enough to be truly fun. The film refuses to acknowledge the silliness of its premise, resulting in an oddly serious product that’s been incorrectly labelled by a scrupulous team of marketers. You’ll want to have a great time with this film, but it seemingly won’t allow you to.

★★☆☆☆

Distributor: Roadshow
Cast: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNanee, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Robert Taylor, Sophia Cai, Masi Oka, Cliff Curtis
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Screenplay: Dean Georgaris, Jon Koeber, Erich Koeber
Producers: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Belle Avery, Colin Wilson
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Production Design: Grant Major

Music: Harry Gregson-Williams
Editors: Steven Kemper, Kelly Matsumoto
Running Time: 113 minutes
Release Date: 16th August 2018 (Australia)

 

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