After years in Development Hell, The Meg, based on the book by Steve Alten, arrives on our screens with the irresistibly high-concept formula of Jason Statham + Giant Shark. It has thus ramped up enthusiasm to giddy heights for those of us who consider ourselves connoisseurs of both the large-creature-runs-amok oeuvre, and the filmography of Mr Statham.
The plot involves an offshore, hi-tec science lab, dedicated to exploring the depths of the ocean. A team of scientists lead by Zhang (Winston Chao) and financed by Morris (Rainn Wilson) set out to prove the floor of the famed Marianas Trench is merely a deep-sea cloud protecting a realm of undiscovered sea life. It begins as a forgotten world yarn in the grand tradition of Jules Verne or Edgar Rice Burroughs. Think 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Land That Time Forgot. But in a similar plot development to Alexandre Aja’s feral Piranha remake, the scientists accidentally let loose a gigantic prehistoric shark, or Megalodon, upon the modern world and it’s up to burly, expert rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Statham) to stop it.
But does it work? Well, the answer is a solidly non-committal ‘yes and no’. On the one hand the Statham / Shark axis is very simple and hard to break and provides a decent two hours of entertainment. But on the other hand, there is simply not enough blood and guts and devouring going on, and you spend the majority of the movie with the feeling they were never allowed to let the throttle out.
The trouble is that although The Meg is quite good, it’s not great. And it should have been great. The running theme is that we end up wanting more. More undersea exploration of the Jules Verne-like trench, more kills, more blood, more quality in the one-liners. It gives us all of that in moderation, but The Meg should be a film of excess.
For example, in the beach scene touted in the trailer, we see a legion of inner tube clad holiday makers floating in the brine as the Meg approaches. We fully expect to see oblivious beach goers chomped to bits and sucked into the gullet of a giant prehistoric shark. And yet it comes to pass in a very safe and pedestrian and blood free conclusion. A couple of folks disappear but without much consequence and it is here that the failings of a PG-13 rating are most keenly felt. The movie never lets rip. Director Jon Turteltaub keeps his foot permanently on the brake.
And Turteltaub is no slouch when it comes to excitement, having helmed the enjoyable National Treasure films. But this general feeling of restraint that flows through The Meg really makes you wonder how the movie would have turned out had Eli Roth not jumped ship. Roth’s brand of gonzo exploitation would really suit this film down to the ground.
Nevertheless, The Meg remains very watchable because of the cast. Statham, for all his physicality, is a cut above his action movie peers, and it’s huge a mistake to dismiss him as simply an action guy who can kick and punch well. While The Stath can indeed kick and punch well, he also has gruff charisma by the bucket load. He manages to make you feel like every one of his characters is your mate, even the maniacs like Chev Chelios from Crank, and that’s his real skill. When The Stath is in a movie you want him to finish slapping people around, step off screen, sit down and pass you a beer. And it’s this down-to-earth likeability that ensures The Meg is still worth your time. The bumps never get that rough because Statham is so enjoyable to watch.
Rainn Wilson is likewise great value as cashed-up millionaire benefactor Morris. He exudes the brash and childish overconfidence only the super-rich possess, and once again likeability wins through. Wilson plays it coy, teetering on the tightrope between good guy and bad guy and is a thoroughly enjoyable presence.
Eagle-eyed fans of Icelandic crime drama Trapped will also recognise Ã“lafur Darri Ã“lafsson among the scientists and the international cast is further rounded out with nice support from Bingbing Li as Suyin, New Zealand character actor Cliff Curtis (Mac), and Ruby Rose as the implausibly named engineer Jaxx (tragically there is no character called Basement to complement her).
So while The Meg might have promised more than it could deliver, it can’t be denied that it is an easy watch and fun while it lasts. It never drags and it never outstays its welcome, so in many respects you can consider it a fun ride. It’s particularly enjoyable if you aren’t burdened by the weight of overexcited expectations.
At the end of the day, The Meg is still a Jason Statham v Giant Shark movie, and that’s one more Jason Statham v Giant Shark movie than we had yesterday. And I don’t know about you, but I for one was getting pretty tired of living in a world without one.