Though they are complete tonal opposites, The Meg feels like an unlikely and very unconventional love letter to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. It’s as if the film’s writers sat down to watch that 1975 masterpiece and just kept asking “What if?” What if the shark really ate people off the beach? What if the heroes could fight the shark underwater? What if they actually did get a bigger boat?
All that and more happens in The Meg, from director Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure); it’s the latest film in the shark attack genre Jaws made so popular all those years ago. It’s a film that not only feels like it’s asking “What ifs” about the plot of Jaws, but its history too. Film historians (and Spielberg himself) will tell you Jaws is a masterpiece because the director had problems on set and couldn’t show the shark as much as he wanted to. That wound up making the movie scarier. Spielberg has nothing to do with The Meg, but the film feels like what may have happened if Jaws had an unlimited budget, access to technology from 40 years in the future, and a few cocktails to boot. It’s a shark film without those famous limitations, and it exploits that privilege accordingly, resulting in the kind of big, dumb, fun action movie everyone loves to see.
So much ridiculous stuff happens in The Meg that the only way for it to work would be to play the whole thing very, very seriously. Sharknado, this most definitely is not. Take Jason Statham, an ideal straight man with a forever knowing gleam in his eye. He plays Jonas, a legendary deep-sea rescuer who, on two separate occasions, runs into an animal that shouldn’t be alive. An animal most people don’t believe he actually saw: the Megalodon, the world’s oldest, biggest, presumably extinct shark. But he did see it and now it’s on the loose.
Before The Meg can really put the pedal to the metal, though, the director has a surprising amount of set up to do which gets a tiny bit frustrating. The film has a huge cast of characters and lots of just-plausible-enough logic to establish before things really get going. Plus, most of this happens in underwater labs or submarines which means it looks very dark. However, if you start to get a little bored, do not fret. When things get going, they really get going.
More so than most movies like it, The Meg is a true snowball of delightful nonsense. It starts small, but once it hits the open water, things continually get bigger and more unrestrained. Then, just when you think it couldn’t get any wilder, it does. Exponentially. Things get so wild in The Meg that the whole movie almost plays like a comedy, with you laughing out of sheer shock and awe.
A lot of that fun comes from the shark, of course, but also the mostly international supporting cast, each of whom plays a crucial role and is developed just enough so you care about whether or not they get eaten. There’s Suyin, played by Bingbing Li, a super scientist who’s better than Jonas at most things as well as a potential love interest. There’s a dumb billionaire played by Rainn Wilson, the station boss played by Cliff Curtis, a tech expert played by new Batwoman Ruby Rose and, most memorably, a young, funny, and clever 10-year-old girl played by Sophia Cai. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are several other small but memorable supporting performances that inject life and personality into the movie.
Along the way, Turteltaub always keeps the action at the forefront. There’s very rarely a scene or bit of character development that doesn’t feature some kind of unfortunate mishap, which in turn leads to an exciting set piece. And those set pieces are incredibly varied, from the traditional boat vs. shark encounters to underwater shark battles, bright beach sequences, over-water races, and even up close and personal confrontations. Some of these are tense, others funny, and others are just impossibly over the top, which just make them that much more exciting.
Everything else about The Meg follows suit with this hyper-realistic tone. The music is poppy and upbeat. The effects are super-realistic but used in suitably cheesy ways. Even the cinematography ebbs and flows with the mood of the movie. Basically, The Meg is dumb, but it knows it’s dumb and buys into it entirely. That gives the whole thing a real cohesion that makes it work. It’s exactly what you hope it will be. A high-octane love letter to the summer blockbuster. A genre started by, you guessed it, Jaws.
The Meg opens August 10.