But He's Large
by Nick Pinkerton
Dir. Jon Turteltaub, U.S., Warner Bros.
Here are a few essential statistics that should give you some idea of the dimensions of The Meg. The film’s title is a diminutive of Megalodon, and it concerns a killer prehistoric shark—which is, per the press release, 75 feet long. The shark terrorizes the crew of a state-of-the-art underwater research facility, Mana One, located offshore in the Western Pacific, for approximately 113 minutes. The budget has been variously reported as $130 million (per Warner Brothers) and $178 million (per Deadline Hollywood); if we split the difference between these figures, this works out to around $1.363 million per minute of screentime, in a movie featuring only two real stars, Jason Statham and Li Bingbing. (Rainn Wilson, playing the entrepreneur financier of the research station, doesn’t count—no one has ever been pleased to see Rainn Wilson show up in a movie.) The film is based on a 1997 potboiler, Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, by Steve Alten, who published six completed sequels in the time it took to produce a movie of the first book, the property having passed through the hands of Disney and New Line Cinema before finally arriving at Warners, who completed it as a U.S.-Chinese coproduction—altogether, 21 years in the making.
I have not read Mr. Alten’s novel, though liberties seem to have been taken with the original text; per Wikipedia, we have been denied a realization of the book’s prologue, in which “during the late Cretaceous Period, a Tyrannosaurus Rex stumbles into the ocean while pursuing a herd of Shantungosaurus, and is surprised to be attacked and devoured by a Megalodon.” This is the stuff of pure cinema, something that could have rivaled the zombie vs. shark battle in Lucio Fulci’s Zombi (1979), and it is to be regretted that Warners didn’t just say fuck it and go for the full $200 million to give us this one little thing. Instead, we begin with Statham, playing a deep-sea rescue specialist called Jonas Taylor, being forced to leave behind crewmen when the damaged submarine they’re clearing is attacked by a massive, unseen threat—later Taylor, long believed crazy for his tales of a ravenous leviathan undiscovered by man, will conclude that this was none other than the Meg, and this adds a personal dimension to his face-offs with the shark, turning him into an Ahab-like avenger.
Other significant alterations reflect the nature of The Meg as a co-production, a collaboration between Warners and the Chinese company Gravity Pictures, heretofore an unknown quantity in this hemisphere. Whereas in Alten’s book the Meg, freed from beneath a layer of permafrost or whatever that had kept it contained in a sub-basement of the Marianas Trench, makes a bee line for San Diego, here it has changed course in deference to the new clout of the emerging superpower, making Sanya Bay in Hainan Province its destination. The crew members on Mana One are international, though there is a significant Chinese presence in the persons of Bingbing, playing a lead scientist; Winston Chao, as her father and the project’s head; and Shuya Sophia Cai as Meiying, the adorable moppet grandchild left to wander the facility, often unattended. The film, which features Chinese actors speaking in both English and, fleetingly, in subtitled Mandarin, is a product pitched to a borderless box-office, with special appeal being made to North America and the Middle Kingdom.
Given the unusual nature of Chinese government involvement in the film industry, Chinese coproductions are peculiar animals, and it is tempting to look for signs of The Meg’s provenance reflected in the final film. The romance that develops between Bingbing and Statham’s characters, for example, is rather chaste by Western movie standards, though she is seen to furtively glory in the sight of his bared torso, impressive in a man of any age, much less 51 years. Moreover, it’s not too much of a stretch to include The Meg in the annals of the cinema of Chinese “soft power”—a concerted effort by President Xi Jinping to use the inducement of opening access to Mainland China’s massive paying audiences in exchange for depictions that agree with the self-image approved by Beijing, which has brought us the likes of Iron Man 3 (2013), Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014), and the crossover catastrophe of The Great Wall (2016).
There is nothing outwardly jingoistic in The Meg—though the nearest thing to a villain is Wilson’s feckless American private investor, who puts lives in danger when he fails to contact the Chinese government about the menace on the high seas, deciding instead to pursue vigilante justice in bourgeois individualist fashion, and the maritime setting might be taken as a roundabout reference to the disputed South China Sea waters. At any rate, we are established as being well beyond the reach of American imperial authority from the film’s early scene-setting view of the Pudong side of the Huangpu River in Shanghai, and its three showpiece skyscrapers: the 88-story, 1,380-foot Jin Mao Tower (completed 1999); the 101-story, 1,614-foot Shanghai World Financial Center (completed 2008); and the 128-story, 2,073-foot Shanghai Tower (completed 2013).
These buildings, all products of international architectural firms burning through heaps of Chinese money, made with cheap labor and corner-cutting building methods, represent an accelerating tendency towards ever-one-upping gigantism—as prevalent in modern architecture as it is in the multiplex. The Sears Tower, completed in 1973, held the title of tallest building in the world for 25 years; today it is an ignoble #21 on the list and plummeting, dwarfed by new constructions in Chinese megalopolis’s like Shenzhen and Tianjin. Titanic’s $200 million price tag in 1997 still cocks eyebrows when adjusted for inflation, but it is no longer an unheard-of outlier, nestling in quite comfortably next to the all-star Avengers revues. As for Jaume Collet-Serra’s recent shark thriller The Shallows (2016) or the ne plus ultra of the genre, Jaws (1975), considered an overbudget debacle during its shoot, they are but small fry next to The Meg, both in budget and in featured fish—Steven Spielberg’s Great White, at an estimated 25 feet, would be chum for the mighty Meg. There is, incidentally, no scene in which the shark’s cutesy nickname is debated or landed on—people just start calling it “The Meg” as though instinctually, and this is never commented upon thereafter.
None of these numbers are being trotted out to say that hugeness is by its very nature inimical to quality, but cinema like architecture is an art concerned with grace, proportion, and a mindfulness of human needs, things which become increasingly difficult to control or bear in mind as size and budget metastasize. The lead architect of The Meg is 55-year-old Jon Turteltaub, a competent, appealingly unserious director with a workmanlike approach just adroitly impersonal enough to have kept him steadily working since 1990, his premiere 21st century achievements being two National Treasure movies, both stupid-smart classics of kitsch Americana, and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010), all featuring Nicolas Cage. There’s a nice bit in the latter film where star Jay Baruchel draws a King Kong on his schoolbus window so that he appears to line up with the Empire State Building, and this same playful sense of scale enlivens a few images in The Meg: aerial views of the surf at Sanya Bay, thickly dotted with particolored floatation devices, or a sequence which has Cai traipsing around the observation deck of Mana One, suddenly coming face-to-face with the Megalodon, glowering down on the overawed morsel.
The film’s individual adults have a more difficult time making their presences felt. There are few actors more enjoyable to watch when mauling human opponents in close quarters than the wolverine-fierce Statham, but here the former member of the British national diving team, faced with an underwater goliath of an opponent that can’t be confronted directly, is mostly called upon to show off his breaststroke in retreat. (Ever the method actor, Statham reportedly traveled to Fiji to dive with bull sharks in preparation for his role.) When he does finally go face-to-face with the Meg, a creature of pure CG with little-to-no physical presence courtesy of practical effects, the impression is of a tiny marionette bobbling about in the surf. Most of the supporting roles, meanwhile, don’t strain easy encapsulation—Australian ex-MTV action star VJ Ruby Rose plays “Smirking Tatted-Up Alt Computer Expert,” for example—and those that leave a lasting aftertaste, such as Page Kennedy’s cringing, cowardly comic relief, do so for all of the wrong reasons.
What you can say for the movie—and it’s an argument that workaday critics driven mad by a steady dumpster diet have plenty of recourse to make lately—is that it knows what it is, and doesn’t try to be anything else. This is, perhaps, a question again of proportion, of filmmakers recognizing that the script and other assets that they’re working with aren’t the stuff that makes masterpieces, wrapping their arms around the clichés, and setting their sights for “It’s Only a Movie” vacuity. The results, as in the case of The Meg, are sometimes referred to as “B-movies,” but the spirit of the best Bs is one of ingenuity and of making do with whatever you can beg, borrow, or steal, a spirit hard-pressed to survive when smothered under endless wheelbarrows of ill-spent money. It is a spirit that has mostly disappeared from the multiplex along with the middle-range genre movie like The Shallows, for as studios face losing market share to a bevy of home entertainment options, they have recommitted themselves to the idea that sheer size is the one inalienable advantage of the cinema. And so we arrive where we are. By any number, The Meg is the hugest shark picture ever made, but like so much that passes as spectacle, it ain’t really big—just tall, that’s all.