We’re going to need a bigger boat for all these shark movies.
On the tail of “The Shallows,” ”47 Meters Down,” ”Dark Tide” and, of course, the seminal “Sharknado,” comes “The Meg,” the latest in a growing school of shark movies, all of which, to varying degrees, use our fond memories of “Jaws” as bait to reel us back in the water again. The hook on this one? Bigger shark.
To my disappointment, the title of “The Meg” does not refer to Meg Ryan (though it’s nice to imagine an action movie revolving around Jason Statham making precarious escapes from the “When Harry Met Sally…” star). No, the titular Meg of Jon Turteltaub’s thriller is the Megalodon, which sounds like either a “Transformers” character or a heavy metal band.
It is, in fact, a prehistoric underwater dinosaur, a kind of supersized shark that went extinct more than 2 million years ago. According to scientists, they could grow up to 60 feet long. According to Hollywood producers, it’s more like 75 feet or more. In “The Meg,” a Megalodon’s dorsal fin sticking out from the water looks from afar like a catamaran.
Naturally, history could not keep such a predator so perfect for today’s movies all to itself, especially when one could be strategically found somewhere in the Pacific, conveniently close to the world’s second largest movie market, China. Based on Steve Alten’s “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror,” ”The Meg” has been in development for some two decades, only to finally emerge as American-Chinese hybrid production.
A state-of-the-art underwater research facility, bankrolled by a cocky young billionaire (Rainn Wilson), uncovers a deeper realm of the Mariana Trench that has for centuries been separated from the rest of the ocean by a cloudy, cold membrane. Soon after a research expedition pushes through the layer in a submersible, they are attacked by an unseen creature, cutting them off from the base above.
For the rescue mission, 11,000 meters down, the team reluctantly turns to the only expert at such a deep dive: Jonas Taylor (Statham). The chief researcher, Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao), elects to quickly bring Taylor out of retirement (he’s living above a bar in Thailand) against the warnings of Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), who believes Taylor reckless for an earlier deep-water nuclear submarine rescue where as many died as lived.
Statham, the sleek, gravelly voiced action star, is lured back underwater because one of the three people trapped — Lori (Jessica McNamee) — happens to be his ex-wife. With remarkably little trouble, he goes from boozing in Thailand to easily piloting a vessel straight down to the seafloor. Statham, sometimes a one-man show, here has a fairly large ensemble around him, one assembled to appeal to moviegoers both East and West. Chinese actress Li Bingbing stars as the divorced single-mother daughter of Dr. Zhang, and Taylor’s love interest. Also in the mix as crew members are Ruby Rose (“Orange is the New Black”) and Page Kennedy.
But the main draw in “The Meg” is obviously the giant shark which, after years stuck at the bottom of the sea, is awfully hungry. There are the expected close scrapes, surprisingly good production design, PG-13 rated chompings and fluctuating levels of even giant-shark-movie plausibility. What is it about sharks that inspires such absurdity in plots? Much of “The Meg” aims for a familiar popcorn mix of frights and ridiculousness that may well do the trick for cheap August thrills, or those who pine for, say, “Deep Blue Sea.”
“The Meg” is best when it acknowledges its derivativeness, just one more silly shark movie in an ocean full of them. Its finest moment is when Statham, having willingly jumped into the water near the Megalodon, channels Dory and murmurs to himself: “Just keep swimming.”