We know more about space than we know about the ocean, with vast swathes of the latter still undiscovered. But what if we are not supposed to go down so deep? This is the premise of The Meg, which pits a deep-sea diving crew against an ancient shark so huge it makes Jaws look like a minnow. Based on the 1997 novel by Steve Alten, The Meg is a classic tale of man’s hubris in the face of prehistoric might, reminiscent of the first two Jurassic Park movies in its sly combination of humour, wonderment, and action thrills.
It stars Jason Statham as Jonas Taylor, a former diver who had to sacrifice two of his best friends in order to save his crew. He claims he was attacked by a giant creature, but as no evidence existed, Taylor was written off as crazy. Five years later, and billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) has created a Bond-like modern underwater research facility off the coast of China to discover what lies beneath the depths of the ocean.
The first dive appears to be going well, discovering a new, wondrous layer to the ocean hitherto unknown, but quickly the crew’s ship is knocked offline by a mysterious attack. Suspecting it to be the mythical megalodon that Taylor once raved about, the team, led by Dr Minway Zhang (Winston Chao) and his daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing), have to rope him back in to save the day. From there, The Meg takes a structure familiar to anyone who has ever seen a creature feature, all leading up to the inevitable climax where Jason Statham squares off bare-chested against a gigantic shark.
Jon Turtletaub, director of crowd-pleasing hits such as the National Treasure series and Cool Runnings, likes to paint in broad, simple strokes, and it’s his execution of the material that makes The Meg a success. With only one dark, downbeat feature to his name (1999’s Instinct), he knows that it’s better to keep this type of material light on its feet. The Meg may make heavy use of CGI, but the action sequences work by prioritising individual moments against all the chaos. For example, Turtletaub finds humorous ways to stress the hugeness of the shark by prefacing its terror with smaller, self-contained moments. With giant sharks, as Spielberg can tell you, it’s all about the reveal, and The Meg knows that it’s far more exciting to tease than it is to rush straight in. It may just be dumb fun, but it’s impressively well-made dumb fun.
The Meg might not take its own action seriously, but the character work is surprisingly solid, ensuring that we actually care about our heroes. At the centre of it all is the burgeoning relationship between Taylor and Suyin, which is as much based upon mutual respect as it is physical attraction (unlike the sexist and patronising Jurassic World). Therefore, even when the action reaches the highest peaks of stupidity, we remain invested in the outcome. The messages may be simple — touting the importance of working as a team and looking out for your friends — but these character moments are eventually resolved through the action itself, making the movie quite affecting for what could’ve been just a high-budget version of Sharknado.
With a $150 million production budget, this is Jason Statham’s biggest star vehicle to date, and rises to the challenge admirably. At times unfairly written off as just an action star, he moves effortlessly between drama and comedy, conveying as much with a smirk or a raise of the eyebrows as he does through a strong line delivery. He has always been a self-aware actor, knowing exactly when to make fun of his own persona while still taking his own character’s problems seriously. Coupled with Turtletaub’s easy-going direction, the final product achieves the perfect balance between stupidity and earnestness. In other words, the ideal late-summer movie.
The Meg | Directed by Jon Turteltaub (US, China 2018), with Jason Statham, Li Bingbing. Starts August 9.
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