Thursday , September 20 2018

‘Meg’ goes deep, stays shallow

Statham battles prehistoric shark

We’re going to need a bigger boat for all these shark movies.

On the tail of “The Shallows,” “47 Meters Down,” “Dark Tide” and, of course, the seminal “Sharknado,” comes “The Meg,” the latest in a growing school of shark movies, all of which, to varying degrees, use our fond memories of “Jaws” as bait to reel us back in the water again. The hook on this one? Bigger shark.

To my disappointment, the title of “The Meg” does not refer to Meg Ryan (though it’s nice to imagine an action movie revolving around Jason Statham making precarious escapes from the “When Harry Met Sally…” star). No, the titular Meg of Jon Turteltaub’s thriller is the Megalodon, which sounds like either a “Transformers” character or a heavy metal band.

It is, in fact, a prehistoric underwater dinosaur, a kind of supersized shark that went extinct more than 2 million years ago. According to scientists, they could grow up to 60 feet long. According to Hollywood producers, it’s more like 75 feet or more. In “The Meg,” a Megalodon’s dorsal fin sticking out from the water looks from afar like a catamaran.

Naturally, history could not keep such a predator so perfect for today’s movies all to itself, especially when one could be strategically found somewhere in the Pacific, conveniently close to the world’s second largest movie market, China. Based on Steve Alten’s “Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror,” ‘’The Meg” has been in development for some two decades, only to finally emerge as American-Chinese hybrid production.

A state-of-the-art underwater research facility, bankrolled by a cocky young billionaire (Rainn Wilson), uncovers a deeper realm of the Mariana Trench that has for centuries been separated from the rest of the ocean by a cloudy, cold membrane. Soon after a research expedition pushes through the layer in a submersible, they are attacked by an unseen creature, cutting them off from the base above.

For the rescue mission, 11,000 meters down, the team reluctantly turns to the only expert at such a deep dive: Jonas Taylor (Statham). The chief researcher, Dr Minway Zhang (Winston Chao), elects to quickly bring Taylor out of retirement (he’s living above a bar in Thailand) against the warnings of Dr Heller (Robert Taylor), who believes Taylor reckless for an earlier deep-water nuclear submarine rescue where as many died as lived.

Statham, the sleek, gravelly voiced action star, is lured back underwater because one of the three people trapped – Lori (Jessica McNamee) – who happens to be his ex-wife. With remarkably little trouble, he goes from boozing in Thailand to easily piloting a vessel straight down to the seafloor. Statham, sometimes a one-man show, here has a fairly large ensemble around him, one assembled to appeal to moviegoers both East and West. Chinese actress Li Bingbing stars as the divorced single-mother daughter of Dr Zhang, and Taylor’s love interest. Also in the mix as crew members are Ruby Rose (“Orange is the New Black”) and Page Kennedy.

Giant

But the main draw in “The Meg” is obviously the giant shark which, after years stuck at the bottom of the sea, is awfully hungry. There are the expected close scrapes, surprisingly good production design, PG-13 rated chompings and fluctuating levels of even giant-shark-movie plausibility. What is it about sharks that inspires such absurdity in plots? Much of “The Meg” aims for a familiar popcorn mix of frights and ridiculousness that may well do the trick for cheap August thrills, or those who pine for, say, “Deep Blue Sea.”

“The Meg” is best when it acknowledges its derivativeness, just one more silly shark movie in an ocean full of them. Its finest moment is when Statham, having willingly jumped into the water near the Megalodon, channels Dory and murmurs to himself: “Just keep swimming.”

For moviegoers, August is no longer the total disreputable dumping ground it once was. Yet if you want to know whether that phenomenon known as the “August movie” is alive and kicking, look no further than “The Meg.” It’s a big, crass, brainlessly expensive B-movie leftover all dressed up to look like the real deal in blockbuster goods. In other words, it’s a film that has all the August qualities. It takes a cast of flatly “likable” second-tier actors and hitches them to the lure of a special-effects creature that, in theory, will prove to be a crowd-pleasing attraction. More than that, the whole thing feels like a copy of a copy. “The Meg” is “Jaws” on dumbed-down steroids, and proud of it. It’s the sort of movie that people used to go to when they went to movies for the air conditioning.

Now they’ll go because it’s an endlessly recycled, low-ball entertainment universe to begin with, so who cares if you’re watching trash? Your mind probably melted down long ago. “The Meg,” a rote sci-fi horror adventure film that features a shark the size of a blue whale, comes on like it wants to be the mother of all deep-sea attack movies. But it’s really just the mother of all generically pandering, totally unsurprising “Jaws” ripoffs.

Is it “fun”? That depends on your definition of fun. “The Meg,” I suppose, is a competent and passable time-killer, and right in the middle of it all is Statham, who in recent years, starting around the time he approached the big 5-0 (he’s now 51), has been looking a bit like Jaws himself: less fleshy than before, all cold eyes and pearly-white snarl. For anyone who’s a fan (like me), a Jason Statham movie always has some bite.

Yet if there’s a disappointment to “The Meg,” it’s not just that the movie isn’t good enough. It’s that it’s not bad enough. For months, a ubiquitous trailer, cut to Bobby Darin’s 1959 version of “Beyond the Sea,” suggested that “The Meg” might be a big-fish-eating-its-own-tail thriller driven by a clever/stupido awareness of its own ticky-tacky August qualities. No such luck. “The Meg” isn’t an ironic horror comedy that winks at you, like “Piranha 3D” or “Little Shop of Horrors” or “Shaun of the Dead.” It’s just pulp staged on an industrial scale. That said, it’s still intent on tweaking your nostalgic tastebuds for ‘70s cheese.

“Jaws,” which came out in the summer of 1975, is a movie that we now think of as the beginning of something. It was the birth of the blockbuster mentality, the movie that originally notched the Spielberg/Lucas axis onto the map, and, of course, the first nail in the coffin of the New Hollywood. (I’d argue that the real first nail was “The Exorcist,” but that’s another story.) Yet before Spielberg turned it into a work of thriller art that left Hitchcock in awe, “Jaws” had a pedigree. In spirit and tradition, it was a grisly exploitation movie, a glorified piece of body-chomping Roger Corman trash. And that, in the age of “Sharknado,” is just what “The Meg” should have been: a gonzo thrill ride – a movie bloody and scary enough to make you squirm with delight. (Agencies)

By Jake Coyle

 

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