Directed By: Jon Turteltaub
Release Date: August 10, 2018
Starring: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis
To say that I've been looking forward to The Meg would be an understatement. Back in 1997, author Steve Alten's first novel, Meg, was published, with a sequel, The Trench, following two years later. In the summer of 2000, while looking for something to read during a flight to Orlando, Florida, the cover of the latter caught my eye – a massive shark's open mouth bearing down on an unfortunate swimmer – and it wasn't long before I'd consumed both books. Alten himself became one of my favorite authors to read throughout the first decade of the 2000s as a result, thanks to other works like Domain, Goliath, and The Loch, and the Meg series has only continued to live on with four further sequels and another on the way.
Alten's original book isn't flawless, but it's an incredibly entertaining read, one that I continue to revisit now and again nearly two decades on, packed with neat science, coated with a sense of adventure and danger, and armed with a slick premise: Deep within the Mariana Trench, an ancient ecosystem has been preserved for millions of years, one in which megalodon sharks - a very real, very frightening, yet thankfully extinct beast that could grow upwards of 65 feet in length - have thrived. But after man dares to step into this ecosystem for the first time, a series of events allows a megalodon to escape into the world above, forcing a team of people, including series' lead Jonas Taylor, a disgraced marine biologist and deep sea diver whose encounter years before with a meg had been dismissed by everyone as a lie, to track and stop the monster shark as a body count rises in its journey across the globe.
Over the years, the film rights to Alten's novel have exchanged many hands, with directors ranging from Jan de Bont (Twister, Speed) to Eli Roth (Hostel) attached along the way, until Warner Bros. finally got the ball well and truly rolling a few years back, with Jon Turteltaub (National Treasure) saddling up to bring The Meg to the big screen. As the film's casting was announced in the latter half of 2016, though, my own concerns about how loyal the film would be to the book started to grow, both with the casting of Jason Statham as Jonas Taylor – the actor a far cry from the character's depiction in the book – and the clear excision of nearly every single supporting character from the book. And when the first footage began to roll out, it became all the more clear that The Meg would not be the movie many fans of the books had been hoping for; certainly, for me at least, not a payoff to nearly two decades' worth of hype and hope.
As such, I have to make this perfectly clear having now seen the film: As an adaptation, The Meg is terrible. It strips away everything that made the book so unique as to be almost unrecognizable. From the characters to huge chunks of the plot, very little here feels familiar, and even the shark itself is robbed of what makes it so compelling to read about. In the novel, thanks to millions of years of evolution having passed by while being trapped in deep, dark waters, the megalodons had developed bioluminescent skin, and once the shark at the heart of the story is unleashed into open water, the book deals with the fact that it is sensitive to sunlight, opting to frequently hunt at night, its presence signified by a haunting, ethereal glow. Visually, it's a fantastic idea, and one that adds a distinct flavor to the book that would've been great if translated to film, and yet The Meg casts it all aside to its detriment.
That said, I'm a firm believer in the idea that adaptations that stray from the source can still be good so long as they capture the essence of what worked. I've covered that concept in a number of reviews before, and one doesn't even have to step outside the shark subgenre of horror to see a great example of that notion in how Steven Spielberg's Jaws dropped all the dead weight of Peter Benchley's novel, from subplots involving the Mafia to an affair between Matt Hooper and Ellen Brody, only to become a better film in the process that completely outstripped the novel it's based on in terms of quality and efficiency. Everyone involved in Jaws knew what to cut and hone in on when translating Benchley’s tale from page to screen without losing sight of the overall appeal of what made that novel such a success story following its publication in 1974.
In comparison, The Meg gets the idea – that is, the notion of a prehistoric monster shark rising from the depths – but completely misses the essence of why Meg, as a novel, works, which is that the book treats the shark as an animal figuring out its new place at the top of the food chain, with the characters and the public all reacting realistically – up to a certain point, admittedly – in terms of what to do and how to handle the situation, a large part of the fun stemming from the fact the pursuit bleeds from days into weeks as the shark traverses open water and all sorts of efforts to stop it are exhausted. The Meg instead treats the shark like a big movie monster, something worth destroying so that everyone can kick back and share a beer afterwards while the audience can cheer, and thus loses the moral center around which the book spun that asked readers to both sympathize with the shark merely doing what it exists to do and understand the danger said existence poses.
But even with The Meg seizing the most simplistic concept of the book, that of the megalodon reentering the modern world, it still doesn't go all out and run wild with it. In fact, the pacing almost feels languid for much of the first two acts, and by the time the shark actually sets its sight on the public in the final act, zeroing in on an overcrowded Chinese beach, the film is almost over. It feels weird to say, but for a film that has gleefully marketed its shark eats people angle, there's actually not a whole lot of shark eating people going on in the movie, and that may just be down to the fact it's clearly playing it safe with a PG-13 rating when it could've stood out more with an R rating, something that – had it actually followed the book's lead – would've given the film a far more visceral, memorable personality.
As it stands, by stripping away all of the unique elements of the book only to offer up nothing else in return to make up for it, and by playing it as absolutely safe as possible, the film suffers from a massive tonal problem. Scenes switch from being self-serious to borderline SyFy Original at breakneck speed, characters musing about the dangers of science only to have one-liners being whipped out. Scenes that could've – and should've – been breathtakingly suspenseful are undermined by jokes; at one point, a character swims out into danger and recites Dory's "Just keep swimming" song from Finding Nemo, and while it drew laughs in the audience, it instantly deflated the tension surrounding the fact that the character was going up against a 70-foot-long shark that could swallow them whole, something that exemplifies the idea that the film is actively, needlessly undermining itself.
Had the film picked a lane and stuck to it, it would've been better off. But when it tries to be a serious science/horror film only to switch into tongue-in-cheek mode, often within the same scene, it falls on its face. For the audience I saw the film with, they gasped and laughed and cheered at all the right, dictated moments, but watching The Meg is a frustrating experience because, even aside from seeing the potential of Alten's novel go to waste, there's an overwhelming feeling it could've been so much more had it just dialed back on trying to appeal to as broad an audience as possible and instead doubled down on being a more unrelenting tale of terror and suspense, or even one that emphasizes the adventure angle of the original story, of chasing the shark across the globe and dealing with how the world reacts.
By not committing, The Meg brings nothing new to the table. Everything about it, from its tone to its performances to its CGI, is across the board, though it's never outright terrible, as Turteltaub's visual eye is decent and what action there is is just enough to keep it entertaining in the moment. But while that may be all anyone needs to cap off the summer season and escape the heat for two hours in an air conditioned theater, as a fan of Alten's work and as someone who wants movies like this to soar and exceed expectations, it just wasn't enough for me. It's cinematic chum, something to be thrown into the waters of the movie-going public that'll immediately draw attention only to be consumed just as quickly and forgotten, and after twenty years' worth of efforts to get it right, it's unfortunate that The Meg hasn't been worth the wait.
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