Thursday, June 20, 2024

‘The Meg’ Flounders

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On paper, The Meg should be a slam dunk. Jason Statham versus a giant shark. Like Snakes On A Plane or Destroy All Monsters the title dictates the expectations.

For a movie with such a low bar as, “Give me Jason Statham punching a shark,” it struggles. The Meg has entire scenes where characters talk about their past and their feelings. I get it, not every scene can be some epic cinematic event of a bald British man wrassling prehistoric nightmares of the deep. Say what you will about Sharknado but it didn’t care about character arcs and didn’t expect us too either.

The fatal flaw of Jon Turteltaub’s The Meg is how it’s just bad as opposed to gleefully bad. Monster movies, much like baseball, seem easy to the eye but are incredibly difficult in practice. The Meg was written by Dean Georgaris, along with Jon and Eric Hoeber. Three screenwriters for the Jason Statham shark fighting movie is what you might call a red flag.

Statham has a wheelhouse and within that wheelhouse he is king. If you want someone to convey pain, loss, regret, compassion, or guile—maybe hire another actor. But as the billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) so succinctly says, “….he looks like a hero and he walks really fast but he sure has a negative attitude.” Statham can hold a baby to his chest during a gunfight while the plane he’s in crashes to the ground and we don’t even bat an eye. It’s a rare talent and exactly what The Meg calls for.

Except The Meg never seems to realize that. For a movie about a gargantuan man-eating shark, its runtime is padded with a baffling amount of exposition. The trio of screenwriters seems convinced that we won’t go along with them without some sort of labored explanation about where the shark came from and how it got here.

The time The Meg spends explaining itself could have been put to better use padding its body count. For a man-eating shark, the titular creature seems to have almost no appetite. From the get-go, it becomes obvious Turteltaub and his writers don’t have it in them to make a truly cheesetastic monster movie. Multiple times the filmmakers try to build suspense. They put a small child in danger, or they’ll have a dog paddling anxiously away from the creature, but to no avail. At no point, ever, does The Meg behave like a movie that would have the guts to kill a child, much less a cute little dog.

To Turteltaub’s credit, he surrounds Statham with character actors to do what Statham cannot: resemble humanity. We have the good doctor Zhang (Winston Chao), the hacker Jaxx (Ruby Rose), the antagonistic Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), the slovenly engineer The Wall (Olafur Darri Olafsson), the wacky sidekick DJ (Page Kennedy), and the ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee). They provide a much-needed cavalcade of sarcastic one-liners to buoy Statham’s grizzled side-eyeing. The lone exception being Statham’s love interest Suyin Zhang (Li Bingbing)

The Meg occasionally overcomes its shortcomings and becomes entertaining. But The Meg has one hurdle it trips over almost every time and that’s Li Bingbing. While the other actors in the cast strive to balance out Statham’s shortcomings, the cast isn’t big enough to balance out Bingbing’s. Her Suyin is supposed to be Statham’s love interest. I would have sooner believed Statham and the CGI megalodon than I did Bingbing and Statham as love interests.

Still, in between all of the humdrum mediocrity, The Meg manages to shine. Ruby Rose’s Jaxx is a nice counterbalance to Statham. Their scenes together had a lovely little sparkle to them. If only because they seemed to share the same language of gruff annoyance with the world around them. Mac (Cliff Curtis), Statham’s old friend, has a nice affability and actually seemed, out of everybody, to be a real person. Impressive considering he’s basically the guy who gets Statham’s character to agree to “one last job.”

Tom Stern has some nice moments, such as the whip pan with Rose’s Jaxx when they are tracking the megalodon. But overall Turteltaub seems to have directed Stern to just point and shoot. References to Jaws aside, The Meg has no real visual energy. It never really effectively conveys any kind of mood or style. From time to time Stern and Turteltaub do pull off effective moments of suspense with a nice payoff. But those moments are rare and are almost always followed by moments that fall flat.

At one point as the shark is leaving a crowded beach, we see the tracking device, embedded in its fin, get knocked out. We watch it float to the ocean floor. Why? Who knows. My guess is there was originally another scene or two dealing with the loss of the signal or shark’s location but it got cut out. Even if that was the case, why waste time showing us the tracking device slowly sink? All it does it set up an expectation that is never paid off or even alluded to ever again. It leaves us with tension but nowhere for it to go.

No lie though, when Statham finally does wrassle with the giant, sort of man-eating shark, I was howling and clapping with joy. The Meg seems at times to want to be taken seriously while at others joyously dives off the deep end. The two polar opposites almost never mesh in a satisfying way.

The Meg is the type of movie that has the camera sink down into the ocean depths as the credits roll to Mickey. As if to poke us in the sides to let us know the filmmakers were in on the joke. You would think we would see a giant shark swim by, or maybe have another one chomp down on the title card at the end of the credits. Right? Movies like The Meg are tailor-made for sequels and franchises. But no; it’s just credits and ugly murky green darkness.

The Meg was wise to get Jason Statham, an actor with a wheelhouse so specific; a reviewer could spend the entire review referencing the actor instead of the character. But, monster movies must either be good or bad. What they cannot be is just alright.

The stories in the monster genre require either complete commitment or outright derision. Anything in between allows for too much thinking. Which in movies involving giant prehistoric creatures and Jason Statham, leaves us treading water.

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

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