‘The Meg’ Swims Right Out of 1950s Sci-Fi Pulp

A movie like The Meg feels a bit strange after two decades of Mega-, Mecha-, -topus and -nado kitsch bludgeoning our senses, because, despite the bombast inherent in “Jason Statham fights a giant prehistoric shark,” The Meg is surprisingly gentle. It even achieves a peculiar effervescence thanks to some squeaky-clean storytelling, right out of the 1950’s era of giant monsters and strapping heroes.

Persevere through the prologue—a submarine rescue with all the budget and directorial flair of a network TV cold open—and The Meg picks up fast, opening into a world of sports car submarines, electric pink coral, underwater research labs and giant squid attacks. The characters are all big, obvious personalities, even stereotypes: the doctor with a chip on his shoulder, the head scientist with something to prove, the punky engineer and the nerdy technician (here comes the stereotype), a funny black dude named DJ who can’t swim.

The Meg’s shark is too scarce for the movie’s first forty minutes, but it doesn’t take long after finally escaping the secret ocean beneath the Marianas Trench (it almost makes sense when they explain it) for the creature to create havoc in the East China Sea. The Meg itself has a lot of personality, with a squat, scarred face and bulldog sneer, often used to good effect. Just as often, The Meg wrings tension from its shark’s massive presence, particularly the battle-damaged dorsal fin, seen slicing the water out near the horizon before whipping around to rocket toward its next target.

One of the smarter things The Meg does is rip off Jaws with the exactness of a forger, cribbing a great shot here and there, but also mirroring the entire climax of the 1975 classic in miniature. This time it’s Suyin (Bingbing Li) armed with the poison spear in the shark cage. But unlike Hooper, who has no option but to scream and hide behind a pile of coral when the cage is ripped free of the boatside crane, all predicaments in The Meg are answered with a fistful of Statham, here playing rescue diver Jonas Taylor.

After sinking their first boat, the megalodon heads for the beach for a snack. Those looking for lots of carnage are likely to end up disappointed. The Meg is not bloodless, but neither is it bloody-minded. Rather than taking pleasure from the handful of people that disappear down its gullet, The Meg prefers setting up another narrow Statham escape, right up to the submarine battle climax.

None of this is particularly original, but it progresses with a matter-of-fact efficiency. The dialogue doesn’t exactly crackle, but it’s always functional, building out paper-thin characters with a bad joke or two, or setting up simple emotional stakes between Statham and the people aboard the Mana One research station. You won’t fall in love with any of these characters, but the conversation never drags. Still, after years of polished, guaranteed to get a chuckle Marvel jokes, it’s almost disorienting just how much of The Meg’s humor falls flat. So many jokes feel like they survived revision after revision simply by being bland enough to pass through all the corporate filters thrown up by the sprawling, multi-company international co-production financing The Meg.

Still, The Meg is oddly charming, more pulp than cheese, like the sci-fi pumped out in the 1950s—nothing so good as Them or Fiends Without a Face, more like Gorgo meets The Atomic Submarine.

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