On the various dramas, comedies, adventures and genres competing underneath the surface of The Meg
The Meg Warner Bros.
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Screenplay: Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Eric Hoeber, based on the novel Meg, by Steve Alten
Starring: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Ruby Rose, Shuya Sophia Cai, Page Kennedy, Robert Taylor, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Jessica McNamee and Masi Oka
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 53 minutes / 2.35:1
August 10, 2018
(out of four)
It would be a lot easier to review the new motion-picture The Meg if I knew what it was.
Actually, no. What I should say is: It would be a lot easier to review The Meg if The Meg itself knew what it was. That this thing spent 22 years in various stages of development and still never managed to figure out what kind of movie it wanted to be either makes perfect sense or no sense at all. Based on Steve Alten's Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, this doesn't naturally seem like an adaptation that would take so much grueling effort to get worked out. It's giant prehistoric shark vs. marine biologists. That's the movie. To cite a couple of obvious prototypes, Peter Benchley's novel Jaws hit shelves in 1974 and the movie arrived a year later. Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park was released in 1990 and the movie hit in 1993.
And yet, seeing The Meg in its final form, you can feel the strain of its countless theoretical incarnations. It's as if a few aborted versions have all been mashed together.
Somewhere along the line, the producers decided that this would be a Jason Statham Joint. Except they didn't even go full Statham. The actor himself has said he had something much different in mind than this compromised final product. The Meg superficially resembles a Statham movie - in that it puts Statham front-and-center as a gruff, badass reluctant hero - but rarely uses his unique charms for any discernible purpose. For most of the movie, he's just kinda there. This is consistent with the film's general inability to forge an identity.
Now would be a good time to mention that The Meg is directed by Jon Turteltaub, certified purveyor of flavorless studio product. He's far too "respectable" to lean into the film's latent schlock value, but neither does he find anything better to do with it. He keeps circling one tonal direction or another - one possible interpretation or another - but never chooses any of them, and then before you know it his two hours are up. The film creeps toward being a campy adventure flick, but never actually becomes one. It creeps toward becoming a more serious underwater drama (think The Abyss), but never manages to make the transition. Ditto broad comedy, ditto horror. It could have been any one of those things, or a hybrid of some sort. Instead it's an ineffectual collection of almosts.
Statham plays rescue diver Jonas Taylor - he's maybe also a paleontologist, or something, but for the movie's purposes he's more concerned with rescues than fossils - discredited five years prior after a rescue op gone wrong. He claimed to have seen a mysterious sea creature and, as a result, made an executive decision to save who he could and leave the others behind. He was blamed for those deaths, his reported sighting written off as psychosis.
Now, a research team operating a new state-of-the-art underwater facility called Mana One may have finally - if accidentally - found corroboration for Jonas' tall tale. And the operation just happens to need a rescue. And the team that needs rescuing just happens to be led by Jonas' ex-wife Lori (Backup Rebecca Romijn Jessica McNamee).
So his old pal Mac (Cliff Curtis) joins Mana One's head scientist Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao) on a recruiting trip to Thailand, where Jonas is living the beach bum life, carving out a meager existence doing odd jobs that give him just enough cash to load up on beers every night. They give him the sales pitch, he plays hardball, he eventually relents, and we all head back underwater just in time for the presumed-extinct Megalodon to show its toothy face.
Seeing the look on Jonas' face when he locks eyes with the creature for the first time, it's like he's finally been reunited with a long-lost love. "It's a Megalodon," he says, a glimmer in his eye - part fear, part determination. This is his destiny. To redeem himself by saving everyone from a giant prehistoric shark.
Then again, that's just me describing the full-Statham version this could have been, and that may have even been fully intended once upon a time. Instead we get bits and pieces of Jonas' heroism and only as much of the redemption arc as can fit amidst all the other half-baked narrative bits and pieces. Among them is a sentimental subplot about motherhood revolving around the oceanographer Suyin (Li Bingbing) and her young daughter Meiying (Shuya Cai). Another is the tone-deaf comic relief provided by Rainn Wilson as Jack Morris, the Mana One's obnoxious billionaire benefactor who clearly sees the facility as a philanthropic vanity project more than anything else. Then there's the film's sub-antagonist, Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), one of those falsely manufactured characters designed only to get in the way every now and then. In his case, he's the doctor who originally diagnosed Jonas as crazy and continues to believe that, up until the moment he finally gets a look at the giant shark with his own two eyes. Around the periphery is a motley crew of distinct personalities played by the likes of Ruby Rose, Page Kennedy and Masi Oka, as well as the aforementioned great character actor Cliff Curtis.
In the right circumstances, there would be something exciting about the volatile aimlessness of The Meg's disparate intentions. Throw a star, a cast of reliable supporting players, and a bunch of mismatched genre elements into the bowl and see what happens. Or rather, see if the right filmmaker can make something out of it - take advantage of the qualities of each performer, cleverly leverage the competing tones and intentions against each other. But Turteltaub gets very little out of any of it. Twenty-two years, and fall for ... this. If reports are to be believed, post-production - specifically, turning a bloody R-rated movie into a sterilized PG-13 version - wasn't a cakewalk, either. Turteltaub was handed a mess, and he delivered exactly that.