Empty Balcony: The Meg

I, and a whole lot of other viewers, went into this film expecting a shitty movie. The only question in my mind was whether it would be a good shitty movie, like Anaconda, or something devoid of all taste and soul, like Baywatch. I was a little disappointed, then, when The Meg turned out to be silly and stupid, but not shitty. It’s not great, it won’t be competing for any major awards, and that’s fine.

The Meg is big budget nonsense. Like many would-be blockbusters that Hollywood makes these days, the filmmakers set aside a big chunk of content to appeal to the Chinese market. This includes featuring Chinese actors, Chinese locations, and Chinese product placement. It’s no more jarring than similar marketing techniques used before Hollywood went global. It’s just more noticeable because for the first time in living memory, Americans are not the only target audience.

Directed by Jon Turtletaub from a screenplay by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber, adapting a novel by Steve Alten, The Meg is the big screen version of all of those awful shark flicks that SyFy has been airing this century. The ideas in this film are much tamer compared to Sharktopus, or Mega Shark Versus Mecha Shark, or any of the wretched Sharknado flicks, but the pedigree is similar.

Off of the coast of China, an area of deep ocean isolated by a thermocline has been discovered by researchers at a new oceanic station. The station, Mana One, is being built by Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao), with funding from Silicon Valley-type billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson). Others on the station include Zhang’s daughter and researcher, Suyin (Li Bingbing), her young daughter, Meiying (Shuya Sophia), and the type of motley crew one finds in a film like this. Think Armageddon, only less annoying. There’s Jaxx (Ruby Rose), Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), Mac (Cliff Curtis), DJ (Page Kennedy), The Wall (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), Lori (Jessica McNamee), and Toshi (Masi Oka). That’s a lot of cast members to list, but this is an ensemble flick. Every one of these characters has at least one sequence important to the film. But, there is a main character — a hero, in the guise of an anti-hero, but really just a hero. Jason Statham plays Jonas, a deep-sea rescue diver with just the right amount of flaws for a film like this.

As we see early in the film, Jonas was forced to make a decision during a rescue that cost the lives of some of his colleagues and friends. It was the right decision, but has since resulted in career ostracization and an endless waterfall of beer in Thailand.

Back in the main plot, a submarine sets out from the research station and descends through the thermocline. There the intrepid explorers find a bountiful seabed full of strange life. They also discover that the prehistoric Megalodon shark, thought to be extinct for millions of years, is alive and well in the deep. After an attack leaves the submarine disabled, the research station has no choice but to call in Jonas for a rescue.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, unexpected has happened to this point in the film. It’s clear very early on that this film will not just use cliché, but will embrace it, will wallow in it, will wrap itself up in it like a warm quilt during an evening chill. It will make sure that if there are any surprises to be had in this film, they will not affect the bottom line. This is not a film meant to challenge viewers in any way. This is a film with Jason Statham trying to kill a giant shark. Nuance would only hurt, not help. This movie is like going to a fast food joint. One doesn’t order a Big Mac with the expectation that there will be anything other than a Big Mac in that wrapper.

The rescue is only the first act. Afterwards, the Megalodon makes its way to surface waters, and the cast is forced to chase it all over the ocean trying to kill it, climaxing off the beaches of Sanya Bay, Hainan Island.

The satisfying bits of this movie are when it relies on itself to move forward. But, being a movie about a giant shark, the filmmakers couldn’t resist paying homage to Jaws. They must have liked Jaws quite a lot, because from the moment the Megalodon leaves the deep, no more than a few minutes seem to pass before there’s a scene or sequence taken directly from Jaws. A dog named ‘Pippin’ even makes an appearance. These make for some eyerolling moments, sure, but it’s all in good fun. This film may be a shameless pursuit of money, but at least it’s not a slog.

As for that pursuit of money, it came out recently that The Meg had been intended to be an R-rated feature with lots of blood and gore. But, the suits decided after wrap to make it PG-13 to access a wider audience. Thus, all the death in this film is sanitized. I don’t think it would have made much difference to the film’s overall quality if it had been bloody. Perhaps if the gore was done in an amusing fashion (that sounds morbid, but it’s been done), it would have improved the final product, but toning down the shark attacks isn’t a noticeable distraction.

Of final note is the film’s science. It’s ridiculous. Whenever a film has shitty science I feel the need to call it out, but only because it’s shitty. The details don’t matter. Again, this is a film about Jason Statham hunting a giant shark. The only science needed is just enough to get Jason Statham near a giant shark. After that, the science kind of takes care of itself. Why demand realism from a movie like this? We get to see Jason Statham at his Statham-iest. There is little levity in his performance. He plays it, perhaps, more gruffly than any other character he has ever played. He never speaks in anything other than a growl. His performance is a caricature of himself, and adds to the absurdity of the proceedings.

The Meg is an ambitious take on shark flicks, drawing from Jaws and Deep Blue Sea, and whatever disaster The Asylum released last. Its veneer is that of a corporate product, but despite the boardroom creativity, it was still a decent watch.