If “The Simpsons” predicted Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, then “Family Guy” forecast the new movie sharks. At one point in the animated sitcom, the protagonist of the series, Peter Griffin, says he wrote a screenplay for a “Jaws”-like film but with a twist no one ever thought of – a bigger shark. That’s the principal innovation offered by “The Meg,” now in wide release in Israel. The movie, which stars Jason Statham (“Fast & Furious 8”), features what is probably the biggest and most expensive shark ever seen on the big screen – but one that is far from being the best of the lot.
It’s been 43 years since Steven Spielberg made people who don’t even live close to the ocean afraid of sharks; “Jaws” was and remains the industry standard and reference point. “The Meg,” well aware of the inevitable comparison to the legendary film, boasts one advantage over its predecessors – size. The picture is more or less based on Steven Alten’s 1997 novel “Meg,” which conjures up the “Megalodon” – “Meg” for short – a huge prehistoric shark that became extinct more than a million years ago.
Alten took advantage of the gaps in our knowledge about the primeval creature to raise a pointless but intriguing question: Given that the oceans are still as vast a mystery for humankind as outer space, how can we know for certain that a particular species is truly extinct? Alten’s answer was that we can’t know, and his book dramatizes one such scenario.
The studios pounced on the book immediately on its publication, but a long series of delays ensued before production finally began two years ago under the veteran director Jon Turteltaub (“While You Were Sleeping,” “National Treasure”). The film’s massive advertising campaign, including the trailer, was based on the untenable coupling of an exaggerated shark and an exaggerated action star. The idea was to create light, self-aware entertainment in the spirit of the “Sharknado” cult movies. The discussion on Twitter, boosted by the movie’s marketing campaign, focused on the question of whether Jason Statham would punch out the shark. This isn’t the place to answer the question with a spoiler, but it is worth noting that it’s misleading if you want to forge the image of a lighthearted movie.
After opening with a virtuoso display by an expert in underwater rescue, Jonas Taylor (Statham), the film fast-forwards a few years to a team of researchers in a sophisticated underwater institute. The director wastes a lot of time with excessively detailed explanations about the facility and its mission, which involves sending a submarine to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the world’s oceans.
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The research team, which consists of a large number of unnecessary characters, wants to prove a hypothesis: that unknown species lurk on the ocean floor. The researchers are right, of course, and experience an overly frontal encounter with a computerized version of the “Meg” that is 28 meters long and capable of swallowing a minibus. So there’s no choice but to summon help in the form of super-diver Taylor, who in the meantime has abandoned the profession in favor of his second love, alcohol.
To catch a shark
At the end of the long, arduous rescue mission – no less arduous for the viewers than for the characters – it turns out that the submarine has fomented a change in the delicate balance of the ocean floor, which until now has prevented the Meg from breaking loose into the open seas. Taylor and the team, who feel responsible for liberating a mega-predator into the ocean, decide to catch the giant shark. Thus we also meet the tycoon who is funding the research (Rainn Wilson, “The Office,” American version); a single parent and oceanographer (Li Bingbing) and a hacker played by Ruby Rose (soon to star in the “Batwoman” series).
All this will indicate the inordinate space Turteltaub devotes to creating the infrastructure for a story not complex enough to justify it. The attempt to inject a scientific spirit into the plot – evoking another Spielberg film, “Jurassic Park” – enhances the picture, but a glut of pseudo-scientific explanations undercuts the effort and wears down the viewer from scene to scene. The attempt to establish a multiplicity of characters who have no real role certainly doesn’t help.
But none of this is why people go to the movies in late August. The raison d’etre of “The Meg” rests on two well-worn and proven draws: a predator shark and a pummeling Jason Statham. We’ll start with the homo sapiens: Statham delivers the goods he always delivers. The action hero has built a long career on a foundation of punches, gunshots and chases, with stunts he insists on doing himself. “The Meg” intersects well with the star’s resumé, perhaps too well. One scene, which involves an underwater chase, makes you wonder whether it was actually lifted from his previous movies, with the villain simply morphing from contract killer to shark.
Statham, then, does what’s expected of him, but the shark is the weak link. Turteltaub somehow succeeds in opening the film with a diving scene that lasts too long, at the same time revealing the shark too early. Because the comparison is obligatory, it’s noteworthy that in “Jaws” it takes an hour and 20 minutes before we see the shark in its full splendor, as Spielberg builds the tension at a harrowingly gradual pace. But in “The Meg” the high points arrive when the viewers are already familiar with every tooth and fin. There are flashes that might generate tension, but “The Meg” is robbed of the wow effect it could have provided.
However, the two most grievous sins in a horror movie starring a shark are that the film contains no horror and the shark doesn’t supply blood. “Jaws” and its imitators understood that the shark is scary even when it’s just a fin hinted at on the surface of the water, but plenty more scary when we see it in action. Which is why the films are banned for children. However, “The Meg” was forced by the studios to appeal to all ages, so as to attract late-summer adolescents. The result is a movie that’s not suitable for most children because it contains too much raw material for nightmares, but not for adults either, because it doesn’t generate enough tension or fear.
The movie poster, which shows a beach packed with people and a vast shark below, reflects the blunder. The image is taken from a scene that had tremendous potential to create an unforgettable moment for horror fans – and it has barely a drop of blood for the camera. Perhaps the only surprise in the film is that too many minor characters survive. The director himself admitted in an interview to the Bloody Disgusting website that he was disappointed by the studios’ decision to censor the film to make it palatable to young people. “I’m glad my kids can see the movie, but the number of really horrifying, disgusting and bloody deaths we had lined up that we didn’t get to do is tragic,” Turteltaub said.
The movie had the potential to provide a frightening shark, or at least to be entertaining with a wink and a nod, the type of film no one would call a masterpiece but which would be a classic summer flick. However, without tension or horror, and even without humor or a light touch, the result is a hybrid that, despite its Hebrew title, “Horror in the Depths,” is actually a maritime adventure picture. The filmmakers violated a rule that even the most incompetent of Spielberg’s imitators know: If you don’t invest in the characters or the plot, or even in the laws of physics or logic, then something has to be eaten up. And with a sequel in the works, it’s worth nothing that Peter Griffin predicted that as well, and revealed its secret: instead of a big shark, an even bigger shark.