The Meg is like a time capsule from 1998, the sort of patently ridiculous but nevertheless stolidly earnest wannabe late-summer tentpole that’s so mind-numbing that at least the act of watching isn’t too painful. A motley team of stereotypes faces a grand disaster scenario and, with the indefatigable guidance of an uber-masculine veritable superman, saves the day…and the world. In this case, the effects are (mildly) upgraded, and all that’s missing from the soundtrack is an anthemic Aerosmith ballad.
Except it’s not 1998, it’s 2018. And though the powers-that-be are doing their damnedest to roll back the clock on any and all progress we’ve made in the last two decades, filmmakers and audiences have nevertheless evolved in the way even the standard Hollywood action film is presented and consumed. The square-jawed action epic is a relic, now supplanted by a smirky irony that indicates even the filmmakers realize how ridiculous the on-screen exploits are. That is, of course, a necessary part of the evolution of presentation and consumption – the conventions that are for a time accepted become archaic and clunky as time wears on. But The Meg is caught somewhere in the time warp. It can’t ever decide if it wants to be a straightforward Roland Emmerich spectacle or a parody of one, and too often it lands on the wrong side of that paradigm.
Jason Statham leads an ensemble cast of terminally misused character actors whose talents are squandered so each can fill a predetermined stereotypical hole in the screenplay’s retrograde blueprint. And the stereotypes aren’t even consistent, shifting from one moment to another on the film’s incomprehensible whims. Rainn Wilson alternates between snarky nerd and mustache-twirling villain from one scene to the next. Former Vine celeb Page Kennedy begins the film as serious and concerned before morphing into over-the-top comic relief. Li Bingbing and Jessica McNamee both exist duly as objects of Statham’s affection and subjects of his heroic exploits. As for Statham himself, he remains charismatic either due to or in spite of his overt brutishness; as a smirky, wise-cracking John McClane type, he’s the only one who seems to be in on the joke, and that includes the filmmakers.
On the subject of John McClane, after the screening someone mentioned to me that The Meg “is like Die Hard in the water.” I suppose that’s true, to the extent that it’s a one-man wrecking crew, except this movie features an actual ensemble cast of professionals who are supposed to perform substantial functions, but who instead watch in awe while Statham stares down, narrowly escapes, and occasionally rides on the fin of the titular “Meg,” a 75-foot Megalodon, the largest predator ever to exist in the sea. His efforts are suitably superhuman, though less so when put in the perspective that Statham performed in front of green screens and Tom Cruise likely would’ve insisted on working for eight months with a shark whisperer so he could perform all his stunts with live sharks in an open environment.
In terms of story (this film is actually based on a novel that was originally published in – you guessed it – 1997), the screenwriters try to overcomplicate the plot with scientific whatever-nots when really this is about a dude trying to stab a giant shark in the eye. Statham is an expert deep-sea diver who was excommunicated after a mission in which he made the easiest, most obvious “save a few rather than let everyone die” decisions ever presented as difficult in a movie. He’s pulled out of drunken retirement to assist in the rescue of a portion of his former crew (including his ex-wife, natch) trapped in the depths of the ocean. Amid the rescue operation, “The Meg” breaks through the depths and begins to prey upon the ocean surface, permitting the film to go on autopilot with an episodic series of “kill the giant shark” efforts in which characters creatively avoid getting picked off by the shark before eventually being very creatively picked off by the shark.
One might imagine any such transparently silly enterprise would understand its silliness and exploit it as self-referential comedy. In the modern context, there really is no other way for a concept like The Meg to work. Instead, this film, which has been in development for the better part of 20 years, operates as though it got the green light way back when, an uncomfortably earnest movie about an earthbound superman taking on a prehistoric shark. High impact music grinds on the soundtrack, the backdrop glows in hazy orange, and valiant men sacrifice for helpless women all in the name of love and shark guts. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a dude with slicked-back hair wearing a gold chain.