Meth-cooking hillbillies. Fast-acting poison. Martian ghosts. Brad Pitt’s incomprehensible accent. Jason Statham has squared off against so many absurd foes over the years, it’s shocking he’s only now getting around to facing down a massive, prehistoric, Syfy-ready shark in The Meg, the summer’s other stupidly-overblown take on a genre-defining classic featuring a hulking, shorn Fast or Furious star. The title refers to Carcharocles megalodon, a relative of the great white thought to have grown upwards of 60 feet long before going extinct millions of years ago. The prohibitive expanses of natural history hold no place in a Statham picture, however, and the megalodon emerges in present day to start a feeding frenzy. Naturally, everyone’s favorite middle-aged Cockney hero has to fight it—and not let live. But as another exercise in the viability of the action movie guy-against-huge monsters formula, can The Meg reach the dizzying middles of the recent, forgettably mundane (and again big, bald, blah blah Fast/Furious-filled) Rampage?
The film’s undercard finds professional diver Jonas Taylor (Statham) interrupting his downed submarine rescue when it’s suddenly destroyed by a mysterious underwater force. Several people are saved, but not all, so Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor, not Tom Waits’ Mystery Men crackpot) and the other survivors are disinclined to believe Taylor’s fish tales. Half a decade later, tritely eccentric (he wears sneakers!) billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson, not the Hall of Fame pitcher) visits his high-tech underwater research facility Mana One to witness a history-making trip to the furthest depths of the ocean. A familiar attack jeopardizes the mission submersible, so, with an obvious option left, Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao) and Mac (Cliff Curtis) ignore Heller’s pleas and go to retrieve the only one who can help them, who has been living in Self-Imposed Disgraced Hero’s Exile (replete with explicit, unconvincing alcoholism) in a sandy bar in Thailand. Longneck in hand, Taylor growls that he doesn’t dive anymore, until learning that the trapped sub’s crew includes Celeste (Jessica McNamee)—HIS EX-WIFE. One perfunctory physical later, and Taylor and Zhang’s daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing) are piloting pseudo-Gungan ships to the bottom of the ocean, inadvertently setting a semi truck-sized monster fish free in the ocean at large. With innocent lives at stake, particularly those on a tourist-choked beach, Taylor and the crew of Mana One are the only ones who can stop The Meg.
In just the preamble alone, The Meg establishes itself as an almost charmingly shameless pastiche, firing through references to similar, better monster movie junk like Deep Blue Sea, Piranha 3D, and Tremors. In fact, it’s so beholden to the hilariously played-out tropes of DBS and its fellow by-the-numbers 90s science fiction-horror-disaster flicks that, a few iPhones aside, The Meg wouldn’t be out of place on a VHS new release wall. It’s just lousy with era staples like unimaginatively-advanced technology, lazy dialogue (“Talk to me!” gets barked over a radio early), and the built-in game of How and When do Which Ill-defined Characters Die? (“How” categories including Lull-shattering Demise, Heroic Sacrifice, and Poetic Comeuppance.) The devotion to these snickeringly familiar tropes would be enough to cement The Meg as a sort of admirably timeless throwback if the movie’s own cowardly lack of ambition didn’t doom it to be so inertly inoffensive that it will air on TBS with minimal editing. It may be a B genre picture at its heart, but with a budget in the mid-nine figures, The Meg never really had a chance at delivering requisite genre thrills (read: gore, big-boy cussing, anything remotely frightening)—though, admittedly, director and virtuoso of vanillaness Jon Turteltaub claims the studio forced cuts to obtain a PG-13 rating.
The Meg’s sanitized bloodlessness is just one symptom of its overall pervasive blandness, which itself is a direct result of being, like Skyscraper, more the result of a foreign sales-maximizing computer algorithm than an actual film. It’s Jaws-by-way-of-international committee (this Chinese-American co-production was filmed in New Zealand), a product manufactured to push tickets as easily as possible in as many places as possible around the planet. Look no further than the main cast’s calculatedly eclectic nationalities for evidence of its pre-planned global appeal: Mana One houses actors from Australia (playing American, for some reason), China, Iceland, Japan, New Zealand, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, and the United States. (The ensemble is such a lazy chemistry void that Cliff Curtis is the de facto standout just for being sort of wryly funny.) The Meg’s sanded edges and reliance on tropes handily cover any territories left unrepresented by the people on-screen; in lieu of appropriately dubbed or subtitled dialogue, anybody can still get the gist of what’s happening in this predictable, derivative tripe.
“Jason Statham vs. a giant fucking shark” is such a dumb logline that The Meg almost should’ve worked—if it had just really gone for it with egregious viscera, unnecessary sexuality, and all the other trappings of proudly winking exploitation fare. Instead it roundly plays it excruciatingly safe, effectively neutering anything resembling innovative or ambitious from its visual effects, story, and performers. Turtletaub can blame Warner Bros. all he wants, but Turteltaub’s C.V. (Phenomenon, Disney’s The Kid, Last Vegas) was a roadmap of mediocre drivel to begin with. The studio doesn’t give a shit anyway; they may have cocked up the chance to make a fun, bloody homage to the adorably hokey tentpole creature features of the 1990s, but they’ve wagered on more than enough international box office revenue to justify paying for the pricey, painfully-anodyne Meg and its inevitable pups. A word of advice for next one: if “yawningly rote” is the ceiling of quality for these things, at least have the decency to make the sequel really, really bad.
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Studio: Warner Bros.
Runtime: 113 minutes
Cast: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Shuya Sophia Cai, Masi Oka