The Meg (2018)

The Meg first published by Sight & Sound, October 2018

Review: Like the prehistoric shark(s) at its centre, The Meg has lain dormant for a long time. Steve Alten‘s 1997 book Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror was optioned for cinematic adaptation in the year it was written, but has since languished in development hell. Finally, some two decades later, it has surfaced with little resemblance to the original novel, and finds itself self-consciously swimming in the wash left by not just Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1977), but also the countless Mega Sharks, Sharknados and Sharktopodes that have gone straight-to-SyFy with toothy gonzo relish. In many ways The Meg is no less absurd than these cheapo Jaws knockoffs, but where it differs from them is in its big budget, matching the monstrous size of the Megalosaurus at its centre. This is a Chinese-American co-production, set mostly in, around and under a research facility 200 miles off the coast of Shanghai. The potential awkwardness of Sino-US collaboration is dramatised early on as billionaire entrepreneur Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) utterly mangles a diplomatic attempt to speak the local tongue; but soon deep-sea rescuer Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) and marine biologist Suyin Zhang (Li Bingbing) are doing their best to foster close international relations as they work – and flirt – together against a supersized selachian released from the ocean’s depths.

Discovering the various directors who have over the years been attached to The Meg is like peeling back the different levels of its evolution to its deeper origin (‘Origin’ and ‘Evolution’ also being the names of two submersibles in the film). Jan de Bont (the Speed films) would have brought high-speed vehicular action (which is still there), with maybe a hint of hammy horror (like in his The Haunting, 1999). Guillermo del Toro would no doubt have found sympathy for the monster (traces of which remain in the depiction of the megalodon as a sort of avenger for sharks cruelly mistreated by us). Eli Roth (The Hostel films; The Green Inferno, 2013) would have brought a misanthropic nastiness to the proceedings – but as it is, Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure, 2004; The Sorceror’s Apprentice, 2010) de-emphasises the horror and amplifies the humour, delivering fun deep-(and shallow-)sea action adventure.

Children (including Suyin’s 8-year-old daughter Meiying, played by Shuya Sophia Cai) and a cute dog (named Pippin) may be imperilled, their diminutive size offsetting the shark’s immensity, but the film is too good-natured to bring these little ones to the real harm that it nonetheless encourages us to imagine. Others certainly are killed in the film, but Turteltaub prefers to show the approach of the meg’s wide-open maw and then to cut away, rather than to dwell on any physical suffering or bodily destruction. An explicit allusion to Finding Nemo (2003) may be intended as a contrast, but The Meg is ultimately a family film, promoting the values of cooperation and filial devotion – even if it retains all the cheesy lines, contrived coincidences and jump-the-shark silliness of a seaborne B movie.

Synopsis: Nobody believes Jonas Taylor’s claim that a giant shark caused his deep-sea rescue mission to end in crew loss. Five years later, as a giant shark jeopardises an international submarine expedition beneath an isotherm off the Chinese coast, Jonas is brought out of retirement, and rescues his ex-wife Lori and The Wall, as a third colleague, Toshi, sacrifices himself to save the rest. In a boat, Jonas and oceanic research facility Mana One’s crew – Minway Zhang, his daughter Suyin, The Wall, Dr Heller, James ‘Mac’ Mackreides, Jaxx Herd, DJ and the facility’s owner Jack Morris – pursue a megalodon that has followed them up from the depths. They manage to kill it with a poisoned injection, only for a much bigger megalodon to overturn their boat, killing The Wall, Heller and Minway.

Back at Mana One, Jack says he has called in the international authorities to bring down ‘the Meg’. He is lying – really he intends to destroy it quietly himself to avoid any future lawsuits. His military contractors accidentally kill a whale instead, and the Meg eats Jack. Realising that the Meg is headed to Sanya Bay’s crowded beach, the Mona One crew pursue it in another boat, and distract it with whale recordings from killing more swimmers. As helicopters, accidentally colliding overhead, force everyone to evacuate the boat, Jonas and Suyin tag team the Meg in their separate submersibles, and Jonas stabs it dead through the eye.

© Anton Bitel