Cinema Dispatch: The Meg

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The Meg and all the images you see in this review are owned by Warner Bros Pictures

Directed by Jon Turteltaub

Jason Statham has fought criminals, terrorists, rednecks, and even Vin Diesel, but can he face his greatest challenge of all?  No, not the shark!  Headlining a hundred million dollar international blockbuster ABOUT a shark!  Heck, even Dwayne Johnson has had some stumbles in that department!  If you think about it, the man is a household name at this point with a huge back catalog of classic action films, yet he’s never really been THE A-LIST STAR his reputation would lead you to believe he has.  Sure he’s in a few franchise that made boatloads of money (Fast and the Furious, The Expendables), but those were always in supporting roles.  The times that HAS headlined a movie, even PHENOMENAL ones like Crank: High Voltage, have never really been the biggest of box office draws; especially in today’s climate where a hundred million dollars can be considered a disappointment.  Now he’s front and center trying to sell himself on the biggest stage of his life; sharing it of course with Chinese superstar Li Bingbing and a giant freaking shark, but still!  Can Statham and company manage to make a classic blockbuster that will catapult him and everyone else here to superstar status, or will this be the biggest shark jumping moment in this new age of giant international blockbusters?  Let’s find out!!

The movie begins in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where there is a research facility called Mana One that is being financed by “eccentric billionaire” Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) and is run by Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao) and his daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing).  The big theory they’re working on is that there may be a place in the ocean EVEN DEEPER than the Mariana Trench which is undetectable by radar for… some reason (something having to do with it being SUPER cold down there) and so they have a manned submarine diving down there to see what they find.  Of course things go wrong almost as soon as they get past the cold patch, and so someone needs to go down there to save them, and as it turns out they know JUST the guy for the job!  Jonas (Jason Statham) is not only the best darn rescue diver of all time, his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) is one of the crew members stuck down there so of COURSE he ends up coming aboard Mana One despite being a grumpy drunk ever since… the incident.  Despite protestations from one of Mana One’s crew (Robert Taylor) due to… the incident, Jonas grabs a super science sub and dive ALL the way down to where the submarine was lost.  He manages to find it, but there’s something else down there waiting for them, and it’s sure no moon!  No, it’s a GIANT FREAKING SHARK (also known as a MEGalodon) that doesn’t take too kindly to weird metal boxes encroaching on his territory, and while Statham is able to save MOST of the sub crew, it turns out that THE MEG managed to follow them home and is wreaking havoc all over the Pacific.  Can Statham and the elite crew of Mana One, including Mac, Jaxx, and DJ (Cliff Curtis, Ruby Rose, and Page Kennedy), find a way to stop this massive creature before it kills everything!?  What exactly does Jack Morris have planned for this newly discovered monster, and is it in the best interest of everyone involved?  Seriously, considering how big this shark is, maybe we should just bite the bullet and call in Godzilla.

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“A glass wall!?  CURSES!!  MY ONE WEAKNESS!!”

It’s not a particularly deep movie, even by the rather low standards of big studio blockbusters, but it’s a lot more fun than I would have expected and manages to find a new (if extraordinarily ludicrous) angle on the Killer Shark genre.  It’s almost kind of fascinating how much of this movie works despite being stripped to the bone in terms of characters and plot, yet the action is there, the shark looks pretty good, and the film comes up with a few creative moments that not only make this very suspenseful at points, but really sells the menace of this giant freaking shark.  This is the kind of movie that puts into stark contrast why I never bought into the whole Sharknado craze as it was selling unique spectacle and high camp but in the most cynical way possible.  I like my campy fun movies to be genuinely trying to entertain and make the most out of what could be rather shoddy material which, while this movie doesn’t PERFECTLY excel at, does a lot more than what would have been required and the effort is very much appreciated.  I mean if I’m gonna see a movie about Jason Statham vs a Giant Shark, it better be as polished and painstakingly detailed as possible!

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“I can take him with my bare hands.  I just choose not to…”

On a nuts and bolts filmmaking level, it manages to be VERY well put together despite its rather modest ambitions.  It certainly looks like a hundred million dollar movie considering how many shark effects and wildly futuristic looking submarines they’ve got lying around, but really this is just a chase movie as THE MEG isn’t a threat to all of humanity (it’s not about to set off nukes or knock out an oil rig) and the only thing at stake here is one beach full of people and the likeable crew who are hunting it.  The simplicity definitely works in this movie’s favor which also means that our two leads, Statham and Bingbing, get to do a lot of action without getting lost in the shuffle or being overwhelmed by the BIGNESS of the situation at hand; unlike certain films I could mention (*cough* Infinity War *cough*).  It shares a lot with Dwayneson “The Rockson” Johnson’s Skyscraper and honestly, just like that movie, I don’t have much to say about the film itself which is REALLY good at what it does but doesn’t warrant much analysis.  Sharks are effective movie monsters, there are a lot of scenes where they come up with creative ways to build tension, and the stars say their one-liners and convincingly sell the action scenes.  Case closed!  Instead, let’s look at the bigger picture of what this film and many other Chinese co-productions are doing with blockbusters and how they vary from the more specifically Hollywood variety.

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“About to make it RAIN up in here!”     “For sure, bro!”

For the most part a lot of these films seem like throwbacks, and not just in literal plot terms as Skyscraper is clearly a Die Hard knock off and this is a supped up version of Jaws, but because they call to mind a certain genres of film that seem to have fallen to the wayside in recent years (mostly killed off by Super Hero movies and franchise features), and for the most part I’d say that its closest relative would be Roland Emmerich disaster movies, which in hindsight means that he was a bit ahead of the curve on where the medium was headed even if his latest efforts haven’t really panned out.  Then again, Turteltaub is no stranger to these kind of over the top action driven adventure films with THREE big budgeted Nicolas Cage movies under his belt.  Big ensemble cast, charismatic and photogenic leads, unfortunate caricatures (we’ll get back to THAT in a minute), and an emphasis on spectacle over story are what we’re dealing with here, and sure that sounds like pretty much ANY blockbuster since the advent of CG animation, but for Emmerich’s films (and certainly this one), there’s a certain… calculation involved that makes it stand out from Mission Impossible, Marvel, and even the Fast and the Furious films; all of which are just as ridiculous in their own way but still don’t quite match what this one is going for.  It’s hard to put my finger on it, but films like this seem less to be STORIES with CHARACTERS as they are a giant stage show or even performance art.  More so than just saying “forget about the plot”, there’s a certain deliberateness to the use of spectacle over character (or maybe it’s more apt to say the SYNERGY of spectacle with actors) that gives this film a certain freedom from convoluted plotting, complicated character motivations, or shared universe maintenance.  None of the actors are really phoning it in or giving any less than the production requires, but there’s not much for them to do in terms of an arc or even character development.  Instead, all the conflicts are primarily external, while also being BIG and SHINY and SUPER COOL, so where someone like Ethan Hunt will do awesome things to save the world in between lamenting about his wife, Jason Statham gets his loner characterization all front and center within fifteen minutes so that we can instead focus on how to stop the GIANT SHARK.  In fact, the best parts of the movie for me was the first act before the shark even showed up where it was simply a rescue operation where they had to get Statham and then put him in a sub thingy to save a bigger sub thingy, and the simple mechanics of watching these people do their jobs, throw a few jabs at each other, and seeing the machinery in action was rather compelling even if the drama and character conflicts are bog standard.

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“Let’s get this show on the road!  I’m not paying you to learn something about yourselves!”

Now that’s not to say it works entirely.  As much as I appreciated the craftsmanship with which they were making a movie purely on spectacle, it does get a bit old after a while as there’s just not a lot to chew on (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk) whenever we have to slow things down a bit.  Everyone in this cast plays their parts quite well and hit their necessary marks in the action scenes, but you can’t expect a cast like this to just make compelling scenes when they have literally nothing to work with in terms of character.  There’s a whole subplot about Statham’s ex-wife being a part of this, and I WILL give this movie a lot of credit for not making that “a thing” in the movie (she’s not evil for leaving him, The Meg isn’t gonna push them back together, neither one is acting jealous or possessive), but there’s also so little screen time between the two that by the time they DO have a quiet scene together you just don’t really feel that history that’s supposed to be there between them.  Heck, I sat there the ENTIRE MOVIE thinking that the Billionaire dude was kind of bland and should have played by someone like Rainn Wilson who would bring a bit more life and originality to the character… and then it turns out he’s ACTUALLY played by Rainn Wilson.  No joke, his character is so flimsy and non-essential that I did not recognize him AT ALL in this movie, but it’s just another indication that everyone is here in service of the spectacle and not the other way around.  The worst though as to be the character of DJ who’s played rather well by Page Kennedy, but is relegated to some rather unfortunate black stereotypes; some of which the film even calls attention to.  He’s generally framed as cowardly by the movie, he barely does anything of substance to advance the crew’s plot to take down The Meg, he’s loud, shrill, and is only around for us to laugh at, and the dude can’t even swim in case we didn’t cover enough BLACK PEOPLE JOKESTM.  There’s nothing wrong with making a movie like this that wants to dazzle you with effects and set pieces rather than with inter-personal drama or interesting character moments; but the best of these try to find a balance between the two and I don’t feel like they achieved it here.  Not the WORST example of bad characters in one of these kind of movies (Roland Emmerich’s got a PRETTY bad track record in that regard), but Jason Statham and Li Bingbing shouldn’t have had to carry as much of this movie as they did and there was no need for a good chunk of the humor to be based on outdated racist stereotypes.

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“This is really messed up.  Plus, I’m probably gonna die first.”     “Hey, at least you GET a personality!  I’m just the somewhat serious father figure, so what do you think MY chances are!?”

We are in no short supply of big silly action movies, but even within that narrow genre there’s still some wiggle room for nuance and variations and I think this movie finds a nice sweet spot that honestly hasn’t been filled in some time.  It doesn’t have the technical panache and dramatic weight that many of its contemporaries strive for, but for such a straightforward and single minded plot as KILL THE GIANT SHARK, it manages to be one of the better examples of it.  I wish it had a bit more going in the story department considering how much talent was on hand, and it’s unfortunate that they’re only black character feels like a throwback in the worst kind of ways, but I managed to enjoy it for what it’s worth and I think a lot of people will like it too.  It’s big enough that I’d say it’s worth checking out on the big screen, but then with so much decent competition in recent weeks as well as some solid looking stuff coming very soon, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if this got lost in the shuffle and you saw it when it got a home release.  Also, if this movie turns out to be a huge success, might I suggest… Tom Cruise vs Kangaroos?  The Rock vs Rock Lobsters?  Liam Neeson vs Wolves again, but this time it’s personal?

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