Friday, August 10, 2018

Big Ass Shark: "The Meg" pulls back too much but still entertains as half-cheeky, half-straight fun


The Meg (2018)
114 min., rated PG-13.

Without competing to be this summer’s “Jaws,” or an effective shark thriller like “The Shallows” and “47 Meters Down,” or even something as outlandishly parodic as a “Sharknado,” “The Meg” passes or fails with a litmus test: do you want to see a movie involving a ginormous prehistoric shark that gets punched by action star Jason Statham? Yes, yes you do. With a grislier, go-for-broke, R-rated vision in adapting Steve Alten’s 1997 novel “Meg,” it could have gone the “Piranha 3D” route with Eli Roth at the helm when he was attached early on in the pre-production process, but director Jon Turteltaub (2013’s “Last Vegas”) and screenwriters Dean Georgaris (2006’s “Tristan & Isolde”), Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber (2013’s “Red 2”) straddle the line between playing things straight and cheerfully embracing the ridiculousness of their premise without much winking. “The Meg” is as smart as bait, but it is just the ticket as a tongue-in-cheek late-summer entertainment. Does the film feel like its dorsal fin was clipped a bit to attract a wider audience? Sure, but judged strictly on its own merits, it is still a tasty commercial crowd-pleaser.

At the Mana One research station 200 miles off the coast of China, billionaire investor Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) drops in to see what he’s funding as a crew of scientists—including marine biologist Suyin (Li Bingbing), daughter of the facility’s founder Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao); operations manager Mac (Cliff Curtis); facility engineer Jaxx (Ruby Rose); physician Heller (Robert Taylor); and joke-cracking-in-a-panic remote pilot DJ (Page Kennedy)—hope to explore the depths of the Mariana Trench. When submarine pilot Lori (Jessica McNamee), along with crew members Toshi (Masi Oka) and The Wall (├ôlafur Darri ├ôlafsson), reach the ocean floor and go through a thermocline layer, it leads to them discovering a sub-ecosystem with species not known to science, particularly a giant creature that won’t let them leave. Their submarine gets trapped 11,000 meters down and the crew is losing oxygen. Called into duty is Lori’s ex-husband, deep sea rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), who botched a rescue in the Philippine Trench that left him having to make the tough decisions five years ago. He has since been living in booze-addled solitude in Thailand and must now combat with the same big threat he came across those years ago. Thought to be extinct for two-million years, a 75-foot prehistoric Megalodon shark is very much alive and ready to eat. Can Jonas and his crew stop the Meg before she heads toward the crowded beaches of Sanya Bay and chows down?

All in the name of fun, “The Meg” is what it is and makes few apologies for the most part. In setting up the characters and the discovery of the Meg, the film does take a half-hour to get moving, and in one of the film’s several nods to “Jaws,” it's a while before seeing the blood-thirsty shark. Outside of Jonas and Suyin, the majority of characters are just chum for the Meg. Some of the line readings, both comic and dramatic last-breath good-byes, fall flat, too. Fortunately, the Meg, herself, is a spectacularly beastly creation, powered by mostly convincing CGI and never losing her menace, and the first face-to-face encounter with the monster of the deep by Suyin’s 8-year-old daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai) in the underwater glass tubing of the Mana One is tense and memorable. There are just enough suspenseful situations for the characters to be placed in peril, from Jonas swimming toward the Meg in hopes of shooting it with a tracking device from a harpoon gun to then being reeled back to the boat, to Suyin daring to get inside an indestructible polycarbonate plastic shark cage, which becomes a chew toy for the Meg. One will also lose count in the number of times characters fall off the side of a boat and into the water at the worst moments. Aside from the obvious, there are a few specific homages to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, like a bride’s Yorkie named Pippin, though the black Labrador retriever from the beaches of Amity was named Pippet, and a just-below-the-surface attack with the Meg turned on her side. 

Giving Dwayne Johnson a day-off, Jason Statham is in his element as Jonas Taylor, a steely hero with a haunted past but also a sense of humor (he sings “Just Keep Swimming” from “Finding Nemo”) and an out-of-the-shower moment to show off his washboard abs that haven’t yet been ruined by his binge-drinking. Statham also shares a cuter interplay with the adorable Sophia Cai, as Suyin’s precocious daughter Meiying, rather than the wedged-in romance with a charismatic Li Bingbing (2014’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction”). Though not everyone gets enough to do, the international ensemble gets to split up the film’s tone into comic relief and earnestness, Cliff Curtis, Rainn Wilson, and Page Kennedy particularly standing out. 

One can spot the missed opportunities where “The Meg” could have been leaner, meaner, and more decisively playful. It sometimes lags when it should be cutting to the chase. With the forced, sterilized PG-13 rating holding back the carnage a bit, it could have gone even more over-the-top and been boundless in dreaming up gruesomely balls-out ways for the Meg to gobble people up. Putting the early pacing issues and child-gloved shark violence aside, the film still entertains with a sheer lack of pretension when director John Turteltaub keeps delivering the sudden jolts, tense close-calls, literal shark jumping, and giddy excitement, particularly when the Meg hits the beach and comes across a buffet of beachgoers (including a poor schmuck rolling around in a giant hamster ball on the water). No one should be expecting great art with “The Meg” because it’s just what the marine biologist with a sense of humor ordered.

Grade: B - 

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