It’s exactly what it aspires to be.
Thanks to a lighthearted tone and some killer special effects. The Meg, based on the 1997 novel by Steve Alten, scrapes out a unique corner in the evil shark horror subgenre A well-cast Jason Statham carries the film while a diverse supporting cast makes the film feel both international and of-the-moment.
Director Jon Turteltau successfully recaptures the lightweight-but-entertaining charm that he brought to the National Treasure films, which distinguishes his shark from similar but darker movies like Jaws and Open Water. This light touch is also necessary for relaying the semi-futuristic ocean research station nonsense on which its plot heavily relies.
The Meg begins with a submarine rescue gone awry; Jonas Taylor (Statham) is sent to the depths of the Mariana Trench to aid survivors of a submarine crash but is forced to abandon several survivors when something attacks the rescue vehicle. Branded as a crazy coward, Taylor moves to Thailand and spends time day-drinking, but he eventually receives word that history has repeated itself. A crew from a futuristic ocean research lab funded by an eccentric billionaire (Rainn Wilson of “The Office”) have been stranded at the bottom of the Mariana Trench due to a mysterious attack, and Taylor’s help is required in rescuing them.
Once he arrives at the station, Taylor clashes with Suyin Zhang (Li Bingbing), a brilliant scientist who lives and works at the research facility with her father and daughter. Taylor and Zhang separately try to save the team at the bottom of the trench and, while there, discover a prehistoric secret: the megadolon, an 80-foot shark thought to be extinct for millions of years, is still alive.
An American-Chinese co-production, The Meg not only highlights the Chinese setting but also gives large roles to Chinese stars. This is a nice departure from other recent blockbusters with heavy Chinese investment, like the more recent entries of the Transformers series, which shoehorn Chinese supporting characters or an action sequence set in China to appease investors. In addition to Bingbing as the film’s female lead, it also includes key supporting roles by Winston Chao and Sophia Cai. Plus, much of the action is set in Chinese locations like Shanghai and Sanya Bay.
The real star of The Meg, however, is the shark. The Meg—as the beast is called—not only looks real but appears to behave as an actual shark would. Some undersea effects involving human shenanigans and submarine maneuvers look a bit fake, but most sequences involving the shark itself are impressively rendered. One disappointment is that though the source material digs deep into the actual science behind the ancient megadolon, the film spends very little time explaining the shark’s natural history.
Another problem is the pacing. A bloated section in the middle of the film, overflowing with Jaws references and featuring The Meg’s most boneheaded human activity, should have been cut down significantly, and the final act starts out with admirable tension but quickly dissolves into over-the-top, cartoon-level action. Still, even the parts that drag are peppered with comic relief thanks to the snappy script and supporting performances by Wilson, Page Kennedy and the precocious Cai, who steals scenes as Suyin’s daughter Meiying.
The movie is exactly what it aspires to be: an engrossing, action-packed monster movie with international appeal. Turteltaub and an impressive array of multicultural talent do an excellent job of balancing deep-sea terror with lighthearted, acrobatic action. While The Meg would have been better had it been tightened up in the editing room and dug deeper into the science of its central beast, it is still a fun summer diversion with a bite that is sure to satisfy audiences around the world.