by Philip Price
Per “The Meg,” the rather exceptional marketing ("opening wide" and "pleased to eat you" are just classic) is something of a misrepresentation, but only slightly as the film is still very much aware it is a silly shark movie even if it ultimately holds itself to a higher standard than that of your typical B-movie fare while certainly taking itself more seriously than the ‘Sharknado’ movies (of which I haven't seen a single one). Could “The Meg” have been a little campier and, in turn, a little more fun with an uptick in the level of self-awareness? Absolutely, but is there enough fun mined from the outrageous premise to leave audiences happy with what they received versus what the marketing led them to expect? It seems this will largely be the deciding factor in how much enjoyment each individual party will take away from the flick, but for this viewer in particular (as well as my wife and countless others in our rather crowded 9:15 pm IMAX showing) “The Meg” balances itself well between allowing Jason Statham to do his bit while giving the supporting players enough to do so as to endear us to the characters and their plight and playing up the corny elements to the point it's impossible to take anything “The Meg” does too seriously which only makes Statham's stern turn as Jonas all the more hilarious. “The Meg” is most certainly dumb and it knows it, but it never shows that full hand and one kind of has to respect the movie for that; the story is ludicrous and it knows you know that, but it kind of hopes you take the action beats seriously and by executing them in such a manner we're both in on the joke of and thrilled at the titular monster whenever they decide to show up. What more does one want from a movie about a prehistoric shark emerging from extinction to engage with Jason Statham in a rage-fueled brawl? Exactly. Nothing.
In “The Meg,” there is a shark. A shark that is awakened if you will and it just so happens Statham's Jonas is the only person on the planet with the skills and experience to even attempt to go toe to toe with this thing. Jonas is a deep sea diver who has given up the life because of a dark past that consists of making a snap decision on a previous dive that cost the lives of two of his best friends, but that he is still questioned about to this day by members of the crew who were rescued and thus has had to learn to live and deal with survivor's guilt. Jonas is as retired as one can be when the likes of old friend Mac (Cliff Curtis) and Mac's latest employer, Zhang (Winston Chao), show up to try and recruit Jonas to help them rescue a crew they've left stranded on the lowest level of the ocean floor to ever be reached by explorers. Jonas is initially adamant about his desire to remain uninvolved, but when he learns his ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee), is among those stranded it seems to be enough to get the chrome-domed star to agree to come back for one last rescue mission. You see, Zhang, a well-respected and regarded marine biologist, has set up an underwater research facility called Mana One that has been funded by billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson). Morris has arrived on site to bear witness to what could potentially be his team's big breakthrough as they're attempting that deepest dive on record which will see them test if there is an even deeper section to the Marianas Trench that has been concealed by a cloud of hydrogen sulfide. Lori, The Wall (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), and Toshi (Masi Oka) have tested the hypothesis that there is more ocean underneath the Trench and proved it correct, but what Zhang and his team-which includes his oceanographer daughter Suyin (Li Bongbing) and eight year-old granddaughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai), the tech chick (Ruby Rose), the equipment expert and comic relief (Page Kennedy), and the doctor/crew member from Jonas' last mission that still blames him for leaving men behind (Robert Taylor)-failed to have predicted is that of the existence of a megalodon. Who would have thought, right? Jonas is quickly ushered in to rescue the crew from beneath the Trench, but by doing so opens a whole other can of fish when the megalodon breaks through the thermocline and discovers a brand new world of open waters.
“The Meg” is well-made schlock. That said, it's admittedly generic in every beat that it hits, but spins these beats in an entertaining enough fashion that the song still sounds fresh. It would seem the main discussion around “The Meg” will continue to come back around to should the film have leaned more into the camp elements of itself or does it lean too far into the more serious tone it demonstrates in certain moments throughout. There has been some discussion over this being due to the PG-13 rating, but it doesn't really feel like the movie needed to necessarily be any gorier than it is or even that much “dumber” than it is to be a better movie. Yes, Jason Statham is playing another version of who we know Jason Statham to be from his many screen performances, but there is also the fact the actor wears a slight smirk in most of his scenes which seems to be a substitute for him outright winking at the camera. The man knows what kind of movie he signed up for and even if he initially signed on to a script that was indeed gorier and more outlandish than what Warner Bros. ultimately decided to release the irony of his own presence isn't lost on Statham. He may not be going full Rick Ford a la his character in Paul Feig's “SPY,” but he is using the level of seriousness with which he plays things as a way of emphasizing the ridiculous nature of the circumstances his character has found himself in. This is a different course of action than other people in the movie, namely Wilson, who is playing an outlandish character through and through (we know this from the shot of his shoes when he first steps off his private helicopter). This tells us Morris' outlandish tendencies are bigger and more obvious and are by default more in line with the kind of movie the marketing led audiences to believe “The Meg” was. And so, in this regard, “The Meg” is in fact that kind of movie. Morris acts as if his life is a movie-cheering when the shark attacks and being disappointed when the explorers don't find what they were looking for; literally not feeling as if he got his money's worth. Both Statham and Wilson are playing their characters in ways that acknowledge the absurdity of the story they're in, but they are playing them to two different degrees. This goes for much of the cast as Kennedy's character solely exists to try and garner laughs whereas Rose's tough, "take no crap from no one" is a stock character in and of itself that she's supposed to be putting her own spin on. While Rose's Jaxx (of course) may not have a whole lot to do and/or doesn't do much with what she has there are enough moments of merit to reassure what I assume will be the vast majority of audience members that what they're seeing on screen is just about in line with what they were sold if not a little better and a little more credible than they were expecting.
What it boils down to, for this reviewer, is the fact I was never disappointed in what fun I wasn't having because I was having a fun enough time and enjoying myself enough to the point that I wasn't bothered by or considering what could have been. Of course, this movie was never really supposed to be about the humans, but more about this giant shark. It is in this regard-meaning, does it pay enough attention to the creature in which the movie takes its name-could it do more? For sure. The first half hour of the movie is completely dedicated to establishing the characters and character dynamics that will follow throughlines from one act to the next (this is what I mean about the movie being better than it must be). No one expects a movie like “The Meg” to have character arcs other than our scorned hero overcoming his past and redeeming himself by defeating the new baddie on the block, but “The Meg” first defines that Jonas is exceptional at his job while having maintained friends (Mac) as well as having made plenty of enemies (Taylor's Dr. Heller) all while maintaining a functional relationship with his ex-wife. That's all well and good and works fine enough to integrate the exiled hero back into the ranks of this new group of deep sea divers, but the movie doesn't stop there as it feels it necessary for Jonas to first strike up an (albeit charming) relationship with the adorable Meiying only to have that affection blossom into something romantic with her mother, Suyin. Of course, Suyin only becomes interested in Jonas after seeing him with his shirt off, so despite the effort here there is still only so much depth to be explored. During the initial rescue mission what we see of the megalodon is little more than a quick swim-by or that of the interiors of submarines becoming indented. There isn't anything wrong with hiding the monster for large chunks of the movie-we all know how effective “Jaws” was in doing just that-and while some of the moments garner a fair amount of tension and evoke a jump scare here or there they most of the time feel like the scares and tension could have been executed with greater effect. This brings us back around to the generic ways director John Turteltaub and/or the studio approached the material with rather than choosing to lean into one specific direction wholeheartedly. There are certainly shortcomings with “The Meg” and its broad tone can certainly be taken as one, but for as generic as it can be “The Meg” never feels bland. When it counts, “The Meg” comes through and the film does enough to, at least in the theater I experienced it in, elicit the gasps, cheers, laughs, and jumps while recognizing viewers showed up to see Jason Statham fly through the air to stab a giant shark in the eye. And that's not to say there aren't missed opportunities, but hey-maybe they're waiting to capitalize on those for the likely sequels as, in case you were unaware, “The Meg” is based on a 1997 novel that spawned a series of at least six books that no doubt contain plenty more creative shark kills and monster mayhem to allow this likely new franchise to last as long as Statham desires.