Critics often dismiss today’s blockbusters as looking like video games, but as anyone who actually plays games can attest, that comparison is hopelessly imprecise, just as it is when the designers of the latest dopey PlayStation shooter insist they’ve created something “cinematic.” So let’s be exact here. Jon Turteltaub’s dino-shark thriller goof The Meg is like video-game cutscenes, specifically the ones that wrench away control of the hero — who just a breath ago could conquer anything...and force you to watch passively as the worst happens.
For most of The Meg, the badass played by Jason Statham blithely achieves the impossible. Here’s a dude who rides on the side of history’s largest shark like some alpha male lamprey, jabbing a spear at its eye and not losing his face mask. He descends double-time to the greatest ocean depths humans have ever plunged, ignoring all safety precautions. And he rocks six-pack abs despite having spent the last couple of years drinking to blackout in the remotest bars in Thailand. But between these feats, the plot demands that he sometimes finds himself briefly helpless. The mega-shark is surging toward a submarine, and our man Jonas — that’s the name of Statham’s character, and it might be funny to ask the actor some day if he can remember it — briefly becomes mortal, a hero cut more from life rather than The Meg. He can’t save everyone, so people die.
What’s never clear is why.
The Meg is a curious hybrid. It’s a studio monster-thriller that’s far funnier than last week’s studio comedy, The Spy Who Dumped Me, often intentionally. More pressingly, it’s a hero-dude adventure movie based on a Michael Crichton-esque paperback techno-thriller, which means we hear more science talk than is strictly necessary, get a tour of a gleaming research facility and meet a billionaire funder (Rainn Wilson) who just might have ulterior motives. But that’s where it gets tricky. The script, like Steve Alten’s book, is concerned with that key selling point of paperback techno-thrillers: the appearance of plausibility. Of course, Jonas couldn’t save everyone off a nuclear sub that’s being rammed by a shark the size of the Chrysler Building.
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The problem is that Turteltaub (Rush Hour, the National Treasure films) hasn’t made a techno-thriller. He’s making a Jason Statham fish-punch fantasy, part parody and part thrill ride, a film utterly defiant of even paperback plausibility. The Meg is so full of last-minute saves and over-the-top heroics that when he pragmatically leaves some characters to die, Jonas seems to have forgotten what kind of movie he’s in. It’s like someone’s yanked the controller away from the video-game player, or like one of the Fast and Furious gearheads suddenly quit with the declaration, “Cars can’t do that!”
Turteltaub’s film often suggest a second breed of cutscene, one that’s undeniably “cinematic,” as it’s a staple of many movies, including his National Treasures. This is the scene where the cast has to straight-facedly justify some absurd bit of derring-do that the hero must perform. The hero might pretend to be annoyed by this — often saying something like, “You mean to tell me that I have to blah blah” — but, like the game player or the audience member, is actually eager. Daydreaming about awesome, stupid heroics is why we’re here! The Meg’s finest moments come in the setups: Having unleashed from a sub-basement of the Mariana Trench a megalodon shark with a maw like Mammoth Caverns, the characters all pitch in to come up with reasons to make the heroes do all the stuff shark movies demand. So they have to pretend that it makes sense for Jonas to swim out to within 100 feet of the beast and spear its fin with a tracker. And Li Bingbing’s character, a marine biologist, simply must have a go at the ol’ shark-cage set piece, enticing the monster from inside a phone booth dangled in well-chummed waters. (Note to everyone who passes through this world worrying that white men are being robbed of opportunities to be movie heroes: Statham almost immediately has to dive in to save her.)
Turteltaub is better at the scenes of conceiving cockamamie plans than at the unleashing of cockamamie-ness. He only occasionally suggests the mystery and majesty of his monster and exhibits little feel for suspense. One sequence involving a little girl, light-up shoes and the glassed-in corridors of an underwater research station suggests that The Meg might have been more. We know the beast is out there, in the dark, and we tense up pleasurably. More often, though, Turteltaub opts to surprise with his shark attacks rather than tease us with the buildup. The beeping of a tracker device speeds up as the beast nears, a pulsing tribute to the Jaws theme, but we’re given little time to soak in anticipation. This comparison is unfair to most summer blockbusters, but since The Meg splices the DNA of Jaws and Jurassic Park, it’s inevitable. During one promising but much-too-brief horror scene, which finds a traitor character stranded on the bloody carcass of a whale in shark and meg-infested waters, I couldn’t help but dream of how Steven Spielberg would have slowed and shaped the material to put the screws to us.
Turteltaub is too buoyant for horror — the deaths and danger never sink in. Puttering in a Zodiac back from a wrecked boat and the corpses of friends and co-workers, one minor character razzes another about her unkempt hair. There’s one black character, and he’s a big fraidy cat whose inability to swim is played for laughs. The climax involves Statham and Bingbing’s characters zipping around in future-tech subs that look like Star Wars fighter ships while the shark menaces some of the world’s most crowded beaches. The action grows increasingly comic, less Crichton than cartoon. The Meg dispenses with all pretense of techno-thriller plausibility and, in its last gasp, becomes suddenly, cornily confident: It’s a movie about a day-saving superdude fighting a shark that we hope won’t eat that puppy in the water. It’s not all it could be, but it ain’t nothing.