Film review: Just keep swimming past ‘The Meg’


Churning forth from the effluence of sunburned, bloated late-summer action fare is “The Meg,” a harmless, pointless bit of monster fluff in which a megalodon repeatedly pulls a “Here’s Johnny!” on a crew of scientists who aren’t quite sure what they are pursuing in a sciency way, for science.

The quick are the ones who, well, move quickly, while the dead might as well have bullseyes taped to their backs, because it is pretty obvious who is going to get chomped and who will survive. While the submersible vehicles are fun and the rescue missions riveting, there is a marked feeling of uncertainty for how to fill in the gaps between action sequences, resulting in long periods that fall dead in the water.

Adapting the 1997 novel “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” by Steve Allen, screenwriters Dean Georgaris and Jon and Erich Hoeber continue the focus on disgraced rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) who must once again return to the depths of the ocean to save friends and former colleagues.

In a botched mission in the Philippine Trench five years prior, Taylor lost half his crew when the nuclear submarine they were rescuing people from was rammed by a massive creature who he claimed was a Carcharodon megalodon, an ancestor of the great white shark assumed extinct.

Now consumed in grief and shame and nursing a constant bottle of beer, his career over and reputation discredited, Taylor has shacked up in a tiny fishing village in Thailand while his now-ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee) is part of a new research team plumbing the abyss, ostensibly for scientific illumination.

The Mana One Research Station is funded by shady billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) who is more concerned with profiting off whatever is dredged up from the dark and protecting his investments over his employees.

Oddly, he shows up after the $1 billion-plus station is operational to tour it for the first time, never having seen a picture or video before. You’d think he’d expect updates on the development of a wee $25 million rover, but he’s playing the “I’m a billionaire so I can be obnoxious and oblivious” card.

Fortunately, his staff actually seem to be dedicated to their respective jobs and missions: Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao) and his daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing) are expert oceanographers and explorers; Jaxx Herd (Ruby Rose) designed the facility; “Mac” Mackreides (Cliff Curtis) is the station chief; Lori and DJ (Page Kennedy) pilot the submersibles.

Although this is a diverse group of professionals at the top of their game, there is still a sex joke made in Lori’s annoyed presence by two geeky scientists (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson and Masi Oka) that proves even on in a tiny submarine on the trench floor, “everything is sexual with you guys.”

Once Lori’s vessel gets attacked and disabled by a large, mysterious shadow, Suyin pilots a similar vessel to rescue her and the hormonal twins that she is babysitting for far too little pay. Often, the depth of female characters is wanting in these monster-disaster movies, but the mother-daughter dynamic between Suyin and precocious eight-year-old Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai) is emboldening and strong.

Suyin doesn’t sugarcoat when things go wrong to shelter the little girl, and her daughter recognizes both the courage of her mother and risk that she is taking. She wants to help save the crew, and Suyin assures her, “One day you will. You’re my brave girl.”

With the females grounded in reality, the men are allowed to snuggle within the cloud of fantasy as time and space are bent for Mac and Zhang to find Taylor and bring him to the research base.

After half a decade of immersion in fermented yeast, you’d think Taylor would be a bloated mess, but Statham retains the same figure he sported when he dove for the Commonwealth 30 years ago, including a set of 30-pack abs. Once he gets to Mana One, he needs no training on the latest technological innovations or preparation for deep-sea exploring; one prayer to the god Crom and Conan the Contrarian defies natural law and the misgivings of the doctor that discredited him, Heller (Robert Taylor) to zip on down 6 miles or so. Unfortunately, all this puncturing of the thermaclime allows a vent to temporarily develop, allowing the leviathans to leave their protective nests and rise to the surface.

Director Jon Turtletaub (Instinct, the National Treasure series) punctuates the scenes of Mana One’s vessels getting soundly pummeled by the megalodon with weaker and weaker subplots of Jonas and Suyin trying to develop chemistry (Statham is imminently more adorable with Meiying) and Morris trying to deflate all the excitement with not one, but two committee meetings. Nothing says disaster like paperwork, and nothing says “I’m the Paul Reiser character from Aliens in this picture,” like a money man wedging himself among the working stiffs to protect the interests of the company. Statham gets to be Ripley, Cai is little Newt, and Li Bingbing is Corporal Hicks. But those were James Cameron films, and this very much isn’t one. Unfortunately, with too many cooks in the kitchen, Mac and Jaxx are left with little to do while Taylor gets to play hero over and over (Mac even directly asks Taylor if he can take over), while DJ inches ever closer to full-on hysterics (even Meiying has to calm him down at one point).

Unlike the crews of the U.S.S. Sulaco in “Aliens” or the underwater drilling platform Deep Core in “The Abyss,” the characters of Mana One are never allowed to develop real ties to each other or empathy with the audience. Aside from Taylor, Suyin, and Meiying, the rest are peripheral to a lukewarm romantic subplot and a half-cooked treatise on conquering and capitalizing from nature.

Not so derivative of “Jaws” as of its increasingly disappointing sequels, “The Meg” denies its titular beast much of the perspective and the audience much of the suspense of the unseen that made Bruce the shark so terrifying in the summer of 1975, instead relying on quick initial glimpses of what would turn out to be terrible CGI of a shark that was scarier and more sinister in “Finding Nemo.” Just keep swimming towards whatever is playing in the theater next door.

“The Meg” (2018)

STARRING Jason Statham, Bingbing Li, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis, Winston Chao, Page Kennedy, Ruby Rose, Shuya Sophia Cai, Robert Taylor, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Masi Oka, Jessica McNamee

DIRECTOR Jon Turtletaub