It’s a really weird thing when you start wishing mid-film that the budget for a hugely-expensive movie like Jon Turteltaub’s The Meg had been given to a certified schlock producer like The Asylum or Troma or a gun-for-hire Sci-Fi Channel production company. At least then, a plainly silly high concept — like that a prehistoric giant shark known as a Megalodon is somehow lurking beneath the ocean floor as we know it and it’s ready to come up and eat some swim-suited motherfuckers — would be treated as such, and we’d be given something as patently ludicrous as Shark Attack 3 to enjoy during “Hot January.”
But no, we’re given these stupid and bullshit movies made as average as possible by a committee of screenwriters and producers in order to make the typical moviegoer feel that, even if the movie sucks, at least they didn’t totally waste their money. It’s almost like Turteltaub (the painfully average director of stuff like National Treasure) and company were tasked with finding the answer to this question: how do you fuck this up?
So, here’s our set-up: Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is a disgraced deep-sea rescue expert who was forced out of his profession after he supposedly cracked up while helping to save seamen trapped on the ocean floor in a sunken nuclear submarine. You see, Jonas saw something rip into the side of the vessel, nearly causing the hull to collapse, and he aborted the mission early, dooming a lot of servicemen and some of his own crew to a watery death. Consumed with guilt and frustration, and confronted with the collapse of his marriage, our boy, much like John Rambo, headed off to southeast Asia to get away from his former life, and spends his days drinking beers and working odd jobs. It’s there that he’s contacted by his old friend Mac (Cliff Curtis) and Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao), a famous oceanologist, with a rescue that only he can perform.
Alongside his daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing), Dr. Zhang runs an underwater lab beneath an oil rig in the Pacific Ocean near the Marianas Trench, and he’s been exploring a pet theory of his: that the assumed bottom of the trench is actually a layer of hydrogen sulfide, and that there might actually be an entire unexplored world, full of ocean life, existing beneath it. This is all financed by Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson), an egotistical billionaire who wants to exploit the potential discovery for all its worth (but maybe not, after all). The pair sent an exploratory vessel to explore that theory — which is correct — but something crashed into the small sub soon after it hit the true bottom, trapping the crew at the very bottom of the trench with that same something that killed Taylor’s crew back in the day. Oh, did I mention that Taylor’s ex-wife (Jessica McNamee) is the sunken ship’s captain? Well, she is, and faced with the opportunity to save someone he cares about and prove himself right in the process, Taylor jumps at it.
You might be surprised to learn that this entire plot is wrapped up in The Meg‘s first half hour, given that it seems to be a solidly-structured setup for a genre plot to hang its action on. It’s even filled out with a whole host of supporting characters with their own niche in what looks like the plot — DJ (Page Kennedy), the drone operator who can’t swim, Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), who was responsible for Taylor getting disgraced in the wake of that rescue, and plenty more — but the movie doesn’t want to go the Deep Blue Sea route and keep everybody trapped in the lab. And why would you, when you’ve got a 75-foot CGI Megalodon to spring upon an unsuspecting population of beachgoers in the South China Sea?
The problem is, the film runs out of plot well before our protagonists decide to hunt down the Meg, which has been freed from its ocean floor prison by Taylor’s most recent rescue attempt, and the whole thing, aside from being generally bloodless, just feels sleepy. It’s a boring collection of half-hearted Jaws tributes, fused with the kind of handsome and slick location photography reserved for a Carnival Cruise Line advertisement (I half-way expected to hear Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” at some point in the third act). Some of the science stuff is occasionally fun (Zhang’s brief “beauty killed the beast” speech is a goofy highlight), and sure, there are underwater A-Wings that our protagonists get to fly around in, but who really cares about that?
The only thing keeping the film above water is the cast, who do a solid job of spinning gold out of what little they’re given by Turteltaub and the other screenwriters. Statham and Bingbing, given a slight and forced romance plot, do a good enough job selling it to us, and it’s always nice seeing the gruff English actor play charming step-dad or babysitter (as Fast 8 proved last year). He’s got an agreeable chemistry with younger actors, and Shuya Sophia Cai, playing Bingbing’s daughter, is no exception to this rule. Ruby Rose makes an appearance as one of the scientists aboard the station, and her American accent is wonderfully all over the place. Rose and the comic-relief Kennedy both understand what kind of crappy movie they’re in, and they play it up agreeably. The one real blight on the ensemble is Wilson, who is stuck in another one of those post-Office roles that fails to realize his true strength as an actor. He’s not a sarcastic disingenuous dick as he is here and was on his short-lived Fox crime drama Backstrom, he’s at his best when he’s playing a character who doesn’t have a hint of irony in their body. This is what made Dwight appealing, and also what made him so great in James Gunn’s deeply under-seen Super. These roles do nothing for him, and you’ll thank God when he’s out of the picture.
Still, shouldn’t the real star of this type of film be the shark? We barely ever get the chance to see the damn thing, given that this subgenre of creature feature has never totally moved past Jaws. Mostly he’s just shattering ships’ hulls and jump-scare eating larger creatures (a blue whale and, memorably, a giant squid which inks itself upon seeing the shark), and perpetually changing sizes, to which a third-act twist only adds to the damn confusion of how big the fucking thing actually is. There’s one fun shot late in the film where the Meg has a bunch of swim trunks and popped tubes in between its teeth after nomming on some beachgoers, but that’s about all you’re going to get. After all, it’s a PG-13 shark movie, so you’re not going to get the blood-and-guts of something like the Piranha remake, but did it have to be so fucking boring? The Meg loves its characters to a fault, in that it’s hesitant to see any of them get eaten by the damn shark. Even the typical shark movie chum, vacationers, are treated with a kindness that’s weirdly unbecoming: cat-calling dudes are killed off-screen along with the women they’re shouting out. Turteltaub could have taken a page from the Emmerich playbook and unleashed a litany of frustrations about the modern beach-going experience or about our particular societal ills, but that would have required some amount of bravery on his part.
Let’s just put this plain: there isn’t a single moment in The Meg anywhere as close as fun as this minute of footage from Shark Attack III, and that alone is proof that you can’t just buy your way out of making a genre movie entertaining.