What made Jaws so great when it first scared audiences away from beaches (and subsequently made the rest of the series so underwhelming or bad) was that it felt so authentic. It’s been widely documented that Steven Spielberg had major technical problems with the shark during production, limiting its exposure to the audience. This “problem” provided much more tension because we could sense a danger lurking in the depths of the water, but couldn’t see it. Ever since then, filmmakers have tried to replicate that sense of fear to varying degrees of success.
The problem is, as technology evolved and became more accessible, that authenticity devolved. Filmmakers jumped at the chance to use computer effects to create more menacing sharks without the hindrance of technical issues, but in doing so, made them less scary. Not only that, but by focusing so much effort on making the shark more frightening, they stopped caring about the characters, which is another ingredient Spielberg nailed to precision. And when the characters simply become a source for food (and the only goal of the filmmaker is how many people die, and how gruesome their deaths will be), we lose that connection and, thus, our ability to relate to what’s happening. The genre, therefore has either embraced the stupidity of shark attacks or have failed to live up to the promise of being the next Jaws.
With The Meg arriving in theaters this weekend, the trailers suggested a film closer to that of Jaws, but one that could have easily become the next Sharknado with a bigger budget. Which way did the film fall, and does it live up to its promise? Let’s break it down.
Unlike a lot of shark movies in the past couple of decades that throw in a bunch of hot, unknown teenagers to fill its roster of victims, director Jon Turteltaub pulls together a great cast of adults to lead the ensemble of deep-sea researchers, led by the always gruff and intimidating Jason Statham. Statham plays Jonas Taylor, a deep-sea diver who wallows away the days in seclusion after losing a couple of friends during a rescue mission gone wrong. He’s pulled back in (aren’t they always) when his ex-wife (Jessica McNamee) is stranded 11,000 feet below the surface. Helping him are Cliff Curtis as the head of the operation, Ruby Rose as the brilliant engineer, Page Kennedy as a drone pilot, and Li Bingbing as a submarine pilot and love interest for Statham.
The final cogs in the wheel are Rainn Wilson, who acts as the audience surrogate as the head of the company financing the research who arrives at the station just in time to witness a massive discovery. We learn everything through his eyes, but does he have the best interests of his employees at heart? The other is a stand-out precocious little girl named Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai). She nicknames Jonas “Crazy” and does other cute things throughout the movie that in any other hands might have become cloying and annoying. But because of Turteltaub, she ends up being very funny, adding a lot of lightness to the otherwise tense proceedings. The entire cast blends well together and allows for a familial atmosphere that you’re more than eager to become a part of.
Like all other shark movies before it, there isn’t much of a plot to discuss. Man plays with something they shouldn’t be playing with and unleashes a monster onto the world they need to put back into its cage or destroy before it destroys the world. What Turteltaub is able to accomplish with The Meg, though, is maintaining a balance between the real and the bizarre. Because we’re dealing with something out of the ordinary, ridiculous is just a stones throw away from over-the-top. The final act does border on this fine line, stretching the suspension of disbelief to the point where it starts to veer a little too far into the absurd, however, for the majority of the film, every action and decision makes sense for the characters and the situations they put themselves in.
Keeping a steady balance of humor to terror is necessary for a film like this. Go too much one way or the other and you either become too serious to care, or you become too schlocky to tolerate. Everyone in the cast does well to give the film the gravitas it needs to be serious, but the intelligence enough to know they’re in a killer shark movie. The humor is generated nicely out of both dire situations and serene character moments that none of it ever feels forced or out of place. You can tell everyone has the ability to laugh at themselves and the silliness of what’s happening but make you believe that nothing is out of the realm of possibility.
Which brings us to the title character – the titular megaladon. After accidentally opening a rift in an ice cloud covering the depths of a previously undiscovered underwater realm, a shark once believed to be extinct escapes. This shark is mean, hungry, but above all else, massive in size, which ultimately makes him hard to kill.
What Turteltaub does with the shark is smart. Instead of trying to up the fear factor by pushing the shark onto us, he takes a page out of Spielberg’s playbook and hides the shark in the shadows throughout the film to focus on the relationships between the characters. There isn’t quite as much depth to these characters as there is in Jaws, but Turteltaub makes it clear that the film isn’t about the shark so much as it is about the hunt, which is what made Jaws the classic it is today. Keeping the enormity of the shark hidden adds to the shock when it does appear in full on screen, its massive jaws ready to tear a boat in half when it gets upset.
Had The Meg chosen to push the shark angle and give our imaginations nothing to feed off of, the film could have gone the way of Sharknado. Instead, it wisely takes pieces from other films and perfectly executes them into something that feels familiar but fresh and new at the same time. This isn’t about how many sharks there are or how many people will end up dying, it’s about delivering a piece of entertainment that won’t drown on its own absurdity.
My Grade: A-
A good horror movie needs to have a set of strong, relatable characters, and powerful performances aside, the characters in Slender Man simply do not have what it takes to hold your interest long enough to care what happens to them. B-
A strong message, a great performance by Ewan McGregor and some fun, witty antics by some of your favorite childhood characters can’t seem to pull Christopher Robin from the depths of morose honey director Marc Forster pulls you into within the first frame of this very sad, gloomy, yet encouraging tale. B+
Next week, new movies include Crazy Rich Asians, Mile 22 and Alpha. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.