Narcissism is delicious—so suggests Jon Turteltaub’s giant-shark flick The Meg. How else to make sense of the strange behavior of its featured creature, an 80-foot prehistoric shark that’s capable of polishing off a humpback whale in a few bites, but instead focuses most of its time picking off humans and comes up with a body count hovering around the high end of single digits? (I never thought I’d be embarrassed for a 60-ton monster, but this megalodon is suuuuuch an underachiever.) Given the violent resistance this shark faces, its behavior is akin to a human eating fire ants for protein.
This is nonsense—megalodons likely ate smaller sharks like great whites, so this one should have bigger fish to... well, not fry, but you get the idea. But no, Turteltaub, screenwriters (Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Eric Hoeber), and American and Chinese investors have decided that of course the giant shark would be obsessed with humans. The nonsense starts to make sense if you take a step back and look at the larger culture: we’re awfully obsessed with ourselves (and with perpetuating dangerous “maneater” shark stereotypes in cinema). Our once-preventable ecological collapse alone indicates that the brain fog of anthropomorphism causes serious lapses in logic. And so we get movies like The Meg. [Minor spoilers below.]
If only it fully leaned into its ridiculousness, then maybe The Meg would be worthwhile. It has its moments, but The Meg is overall a limp movie—it has a big monster and absolutely no idea what to do with it. The powers that be have shoehorned a giant beast into a standard shark-movie template, creating a wake of missed opportunity.
Take, for example, the scene set at a Chinese beach that kicks off The Meg’s climax. We see the kind of shark’s-eye view shot that was the staple of Jaws movies, as the camera gazes up at swimmers from below. (Why anyone at this point would swim in what appears to be 30-feet-deep ocean water is a mystery to me—haven’t they seen shark movies???) Soon, the fin surfaces but the shark dawdles, giving bathers plenty of time for a splashy exodus to the shore. Some remain, and by my count only one gets killed in the sort of bloodless death that PG-13 movies mythologize the possibility of existing. Shouldn’t the shark just open up and swallow people like a humpback does krill? The least it could do is skim the surface with its teeth, sucking up humans like zooplankton. You’ve got a giant shark with a giant jaw, use it!
But for a movie that exists to revel in the awesomeness of the megalodon—a movie whose primary use beyond popcorn escapism is to provide a mesmerizing visual comparison between the size of megalodons and humans—The Meg is awfully blasé about its titular monster. When the shark is first spotted by a scientist who’s exploring the depths of the Mariana Trench, she reports, “It’s a shark; it’s like 20, 25 meters.” Over the intercom, Jason Statham’s character Jonas responds, “It’s a megalodon,” as flatly as you would identify toothpaste as the cause of the stain on your shirt that someone just pointed out. Absolutely no one seems particularly moved that they’re now in the presence of a dinosaur that is believed to have been extinct for over 2 million years.
The Meg is generally some combination of silly and lazy—when a wooden actor deadpans a melodramatic line (“That living fossil ate my friend”; “You ever think Mother Nature might know what she’s doing?”), the movie seems at peace with its B-movie DNA. But the intentional humor is rarely funny (and often delivered via Rainn Wilson playing a Richard Branson type, which... what?), the science is spotty (the meg is able to move from the depths of the trench to shallower water because somehow the presence of a vessel raised the temperature of the thermocline??), and Statham whisper-talks like he’s doing some role play-sex impression of Batman (with a side of Keith Richards’s mumbles). There are even attempts at wokeness, though they are fleeting, at best—the crew of scientists who first encounter the meg bemoan poaching and the shark-fin soup industry when they encounter some finless sharks bobbing in the water.
At worst, the wokeness is a sleight of hand to distract you from the offenses the movie is committing—a black character, DJ (Page Kennedy), warns another character to refrain from racist comments when he finds out that DJ can’t swim. But the thing is: DJ is a black character who... can’t swim. Identifying the stereotype doesn’t lessen it. Similarly, Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao), the head scientist of the group who first encounters the meg, claps back when Wilson’s character says, after surviving a brush with the megalodon, “Well, how do you like that? That was a serious man versus nature moment. I’m glad things went our way.” Zhang corrects him by reminding him that the shark already killed one of his colleagues and that, further, it’s not going well for science, either. “We did what people always do: discover and then destroy,” he says.
“How said, oh well,” the movie seems to be saying as it moves on in following the quest to destroy the shark. Spoiler alert: The humans triumph. And here again, we’re reminded of the missed opportunity: in Steve Alten’s pulpy 1997 novel on which this movie is loosely based, Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, the Jonas character ends up being swallowed by the meg, pushing his way through her insides to get to her beating heart which he tugs on and eventually severs from its blood supply with one of her own teeth. The climax of this movie is bonkers, but tame by comparison, the final indication of the missed opportunity that is The Meg.
The Meg is in theaters this Friday, August 10.