The Meg is a B-movie creature feature that seems to be trying so hard to be average, never favoring a tone too serious or silly. It struggles to play it straight with its exposition of underwater research and horrific with the titular shark, but still wants to wink at the camera and have a laugh with a quip or two. A PG-13 rating for a bigger summer box office gross prevents any memorable kills or bloody terror. It’s this assembly that makes the movie more of a dry, by-the-numbers monster movie than a more campier version that pays homage to its lesser and goofier counterparts.
One advantage such a film has over the endless direct-to-video shark movies is a budget put to good use. The story opens with an underwater research facility that is a dazzling display of transparent tube walkways and high-tech exploration vessels. Funded by an eccentric and dimwitted billionaire (Rainn Wilson), a colorful team of engineers and scientists venture into an unexplored part of the ocean where undiscovered marine life resides. It’s a beautiful sight of wondrous creatures. And when the star monster of the Megalodon, a giant shark that has giant whales for dinner, finally looms over his first craft and takes his first bites, it’s quite the sight.
When one vessel takes one tackle too many from the giant beast, a rescue operation must be made soon before they all die. The only man for the job is former deep-sea rescuer Jonas Taylor, played by Jason Statham with his usual cocky attitude and knowing smirk. He was previously disgraced for making a quick decision during an underwater rescue to pull out before saving everyone due to some giant monster he claims blew up a submarine. Perhaps this time he’ll be proven right about underwater sub-killers and not leave behind those who need rescue. He’s trying so hard to save everyone that a few of the researchers will be required to make rather stupid mistakes so we have our slasher element of munched victims.
Similar to the flawed monster movies of yesteryear, The Meg comes loaded with artificial characters and missed opportunities. The team of researchers are certainly a unique collective, from Ruby Rose as the tattooed techie to Page Kennedy as the “screw this, I’m out” commenter, but they never really break out of their exposition and quip slinging to be anything more. This leads to several last-minute additions of character that seemingly come out of left field. A perfect example is with Li Bingbing as the lead oceanographer of the facility, Suyin Zhang, working alongside her father, Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao). They seem to have a good relationship, but it’s revealed during a more intense life-or-death moment that Minway regrets not being a better father. This is just one of the many moments where my eyebrow ascended higher as I questioned where these subplots came from. The biggest one, literally and figuratively, is the presence of a second Megalodon. He must’ve just been hanging out waiting for another one to team-up with.
But what most peeved me about the picture was the lack of gruesome kills. How could a film of this size have a shark attack at one of the largest and most populated beaches on the planet and not feature any quality kills? No massive group of floating partiers is swallowed in one gulp. No grand display of the Megalodon launching out of the water and landing on his victims to be had. The film doesn’t even have the guts to kill off a tiny dog in a what could have been a great moment of juxtaposition. Aside from a quick gobble of a swimmer in a plastic sphere, the most the Megalodon does is rough up some boats and push around some platforms. The killer sharks of Jaws would call this guy amateur; all teeth and no bite.
Maybe I’ve just been spoiled by over-the-top shark movies that go the extra mile of absurdity, but The Meg’s presentation feels so standard for never going out of its way to being anything more than a passive thrill. Despite some atmospheric jump-scares and a visually pleasing chases of Statham duking it out with the shark in a zippy underwater vessel, there’s very little here to be distinct of the shark genre. All laughs come by formula, all deaths telegraphed, and all characters come with a wink too rusty to be believable. It’s the type of monster movie built to be the most acceptable late summer matinees rather than a campy romp of a massacre of marine life. It’s no Sharknado, for better and worse.