By MICHAEL GINGOLD
Starring Jason Statham, Li Bingbing and Rainn Wilson
Directed by Jon Turteltaub
Written by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber
Among the many ways in which THE MEG echoes JAWS is that it’s a significant improvement on its source novel. Steven Spielberg turned Peter Benchley’s decent beach read into a classic for the ages, and Steve Alten’s schlockily written MEG has now become a pretty entertaining piece of expensive pulp filmmaking, perfect for late-summer turn-off-the-brain viewing.
The surprise is that it took so long for MEG to become a movie. Beyond Alten’s gift for self-promotion, one thing his novel had going for it was a premise that made it irresistible to Hollywood (“Two words: Jurassic shark,” as a much-quoted Los Angeles Times review put it). A film was announced not long after its 1997 publication, with Jeffrey Boam (THE DEAD ZONE) scripting, but the project swam through two decades of development hell, during which numerous similarly themed low-budget flicks—like the cult fave SHARK ATTACK 3: MEGALODON—swam onto the direct-to-video scene. Filmmakers attached to MEG have included Guillermo del Toro (as producer) and, more recently, Eli Roth, and it would have been interesting to see how either of those two horror specialists handled the material. The director who wound up sticking the gig is Jon Turteltaub, whose résumé consists of more benign fare like COOL RUNNINGS and NATIONAL TREASURE, and whose work on the rechristened THE MEG is proficient if somewhat impersonal.
Right off the bat, the movie’s opening scene is better than the book’s (no urinating dinosaurs here). Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is leading a very-deep-sea rescue mission when the crippled submarine whose crew he’s trying to save is attacked by something huge and unseen, forcing a life-and-death decision that will become Jonas’ Tragic Past Incident.™ Five years later, the crew of an underwater research facility have found that the Marianas Trench is not the deepest point of the ocean; there’s a realm beneath it full of strange fauna, along with something huge and unseen that rams and disables an exploratory craft.
Needless to say, Jonas, who has been living a beer-soaked life in Thailand ever since his Tragic Past Incident™, is the only man who can save the day. Shortly after his arrival at the facility, the team discovers that the attacker is a megalodon, a 75-foot-plus shark heretofore thought extinct. Jonas realizes that this must be the same beast that assaulted the sub five years ago, though (POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT) no one questions how that’s possible when it has been confined to that sub-Marianas cavern, most likely because that would give away the movie’s big plot twist. This will seem very familiar to anyone who’s seen SHARK ATTACK 3 and numerous other creature features, but its reveal is still a well-staged and startling highlight.
Anyhow, the meg finds its way out into the open sea and over to the base, revealing itself in an eerie moment that would be even more effective if we hadn’t already seen it repeatedly in the ubiquitous trailers and TV spots. THE MEG takes a while to get to this pivotal point, and the time leading up to it is fairly well-spent because Turteltaub builds decent tension down in the depths, and the cast are all personable and have an easy, likable chemistry. Statham, who has a talent for plowing through the most outrageous situations with bad-assery intact—and is also a former competitive diver—is the perfect actor for this premise, and plays well with Li Bingbing as Suyin, an oceanographer and single mom who might become Jonas’ love interest, Rainn Wilson as the billionaire bro who financed the whole operation and Robert Taylor as medical officer Dr. Heller, with whom Jonas has an antagonistic history.
As for the meg itself, Turteltaub and scripters Dean Georgaris and Jon and Erich Hoeber treat it like a predatory animal rather than a monster, which helps ground the fanciful premise. Since this particular shark doesn’t actually exist today, THE MEG can’t tap the primal terror that JAWS did; you’re not going to leave this movie afraid to go in the water. Instead, Turteltaub and co. go for basic giant-creature thrills, and deliver sufficient excitement to keep you diverted for the two-hour running time. There are a couple of harrowing scenes in which Jonas and Suyin must plunge into the drink to confront the beast (a super-plastic shark cage that can withstand enormous pressure isn’t much help when the meg can simply swallow it whole), and a wonderful over-the-top bit during Jonas’ final tangle with it. The only disappointment is at the climax, when the meg finds its way to a heavily populated beach, but spends most of its time lurking under the swimmers’ dangling feet instead of chowing down on them. If you’re going to make a movie about a shark more than three times the size of JAWS’ great white, it’s to be expected that you’ll multiply the body count by a high factor as well.