Over twenty years ago, Steve Alten’s first novel Meg – basically, Jurassic Jaws – came out with a huge publicity budget and a ‘soon to be a major movie’ tag. It’s been in development ever since – with the once-hot Jan De Bont attached to direct, and presumably many other comings and goings on the creative front. Finally, here it is as a big summer release – the splendid tagline is ‘opening wide’ – from Jon Turteltaub, who has a track record in films people saw but probably couldn’t name the director of (National Treasure, Instinct, While You Were Sleeping, Cool Runnings). In the interim, the high concept of a prehistoric shark – a megalodon – showing up to wreak havoc in modern seas has become a commonplace on the SyFy Channel, who have a whole MegaShark franchise going, not to mention Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, Megalodon, Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. Indeed, what with sequels to Sharknado and Sharktopus nipping at the genre in a feeding frenzy, it seems odd to bet the farm on doing another one of these things, albeit with a reasonable budget and actors you recognise (after the manner of Deep Blue Sea) rather than chump change and a bunch of bikini models.
Before the press screening, there was some concern than the 12A rating would preclude the gut-munching action so beloved of national newspaper critics – but this offers a modicum of spilled gore (including some impressive whale splatter) as seasoning for an omelette of splendid hokum. Credited screenwriters Jon and Erich Hoeber (Whiteout, Red) and Dean Georgaris (the Manchurian Candidate remake, Tristan + Isolde) – and who knows when they delivered their drafts and whether they even met – essentially junk the novel, keeping only the hero’s name and the concept of an aggressive prehistoric shark on the rampage. In fact, the actual plot of the film seems to be a scrambling of Deep Blue Sea and Jaws 3D – though this is essentially a conglomeration of cliché developments, sketchy characters, sly self-mockery, gruesome gags, nicely-turned lines, and the sort of seashore panic audiences have loved ever since Jaws first snacked on a bathing beauty. In a prologue, deepsea rescue expert Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham – finally using his Olympic diving experience in a movie) makes a tough decision and loses several good friends while saving a sub crew at crush depth … later, he becomes a beer-drinking washout because no one believes his story that the crisis was caused by a huge aquatic animal no one saw. However, when an exploratory sub deep in the Marianas Trench gets in trouble, the pilot – who, wouldn’t you know it, happens to be the hero’s ex-wife (Jessica McNamee) – cries out ‘Jonas was right’, which is enough to bring him out of boozy retirement and back in the water.
We are briskly introduced to a whole array of characters – and have the fun of guessing who’ll turn out to be chum – in and around an impressive underwater lab: smart scientist Suyin (Bingbing Li), who has her silver fox Dad (Winston Chao) and adorable moppet (Sophia Cai) in tow; the doctor (Robert Taylor) who said Jonas was crazy; an arrogant billionaire (Rainn Wilson) who does comedy relief schtick; a drone operator (Page Kennedy) who must have studied LL Cool J’s performance in Deep Blue Sea the way anyone who plays Richard III looks at Laurence Olivier; and a multinational array of supporting marine boffins who it might be an idea not to get too attached to (Cliff Curtis, Ruby Rose, Masi Oka, Olafur Darri Olafsson). Since this is one of those Hollywood-China co-productions, it’s notable that all the Chinese characters are noble and heroic – though Suyin does ogle a showering cut Statham in an amusing reversal of the usual eye candy business – while other nationalities can present more interesting yellow streaks or foul up fatally. The rescue attempt is hindered by a giant squid, which is then munched by the meg – and the rest of the film is about what happens when the hungry hungry fish gets into open waters and tucks into a smorgasbord of sharkfin poachers and holidaymakers (plus an irritatingly pampered lapdog).
Watch this cold at home and you’ll wonder what the fuss is about – but see it on Saturday night in a packed cinema, and it’s a hoot. The meg itself is a reasonably impressive CGI beastie, and doesn’t quite project a personality even on a par with Godzilla – the fact that one giant shark is much like another is even a plot point – but the human cast make up for it. Alten has written a ton of sequels. Now, The Meg is finally here, I wouldn’t be surprised if it matured into a franchise.