A giant, prehistoric, man-eating shark and a perpetually unshaven, furrowed-brow Jason Statham: A premise-actor combo that practically writes itself. Except it doesn’t, unfortunately, or rather didn’t. Screenwriters were, in fact, needed.
Despite spending the better part of two decades in development, Steve Alten’s inexplicably best-selling dino-shark novel, “Meg,” probably needed another twenty years getting worked over and over by waves of screenwriting teams before it was ready for a big-screen adaptation. No such luck, though. Directed by Jon Turteltaub (Last Vegas, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, National Treasure, Cool Runnings) from a screenplay credited to Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Erich Hoeber, The Meg, somehow manages the unlikely feat of taking itself too seriously and not seriously enough simultaneously, leaving a tonally messy, short-on-humor, long-on-passable-CGI disappointment in its wake.
When we meet Statham’s character, Jonas Taylor, apparently one of the world’s best and/or foremost undersea divers and rescuers, he’s not exactly failing miserably (he saves 11 lives), but by superheroic standards, he’s not fully succeeding either (he leaves two men behind), setting Taylor on a predictable path of redemption (save more lives, make your peace with the past, also get a girlfriend) that takes five years, a bar in Thailand, and an almost infinite amount of beer before it actually gets going.
Taylor loses everything, including his rep and livelihood, when he claims something big, something no one saw or detected, slammed into the busted-up submarine where his last undersea rescue mission happened. Being treated like a crazy man led to Taylor becoming a drunk with a perpetual five o’clock shadow. It takes another deepwater accident, one involving his estranged ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee), plus two disposable side characters, The Wall (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) and Toshi (Masi Oka), to convince Taylor to get back to doing what he does best (no, not fighting 79-feet mega-sharks, that comes later).
Longtime movie veteran Turteltaub’s resume doesn’t exactly scream Spielberg-level auteur or even mid-tier, journeyman director if we’re being honest, but he can’t help but take a chapter or three from Jaws (Spielberg’s film, not the novel), by keeping the title character (“meg” is short for “megalodon”) off-screen for most of the first hour.
Spielberg’s decision not to show the shark famously happened because “Bruce the Shark,” the mechanical shark created to resemble its real-life counterpart, kept breaking down, forcing Spielberg and his crew to improvise. Turtletaub plays the megalodon visual for suspense, but given that everyone’s already seen the CGI mega-shark in trailers and TV spots, delaying Meg’s first appearance for an hour carries little weight or punch. It just … more or less happens. It’s an extra-large shark that quickly develops an appetite for snack-sized humans, including practically everyone that crosses paths with Taylor.
Taylor eventually joins the crew of “Mana One,” an ultra-expensive, high-end underwater research facility financed by a semi-bored, Elon Musk-inspired billionaire, Morris (Rainn Wilson), and run by Zhang (Winston Chao), a “best in his class” marine scientist who takes himself far too seriously, and his researcher daughter, Suyin (Bingbing Li).
The single, ready-to-mingle Suyin has a daughter of her own, Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai), an ultra-precocious 10-year-old with a Ph.D. in romance and an uncanny knack for getting herself into trouble. For whatever reason, she has the full run of the research facility, mostly (usually) without adult supervision of any kind. Asking questions, even simple questions like why Meiying isn’t on the mainland, in school, or around other children isn’t a question The Meg wants us to ask.
The usual obstacles (she’s strong-willed, he’s stubborn, they’re both alpha good at everything they do) throw themselves into the way of Taylor and Suyin’s chaste relationship – they don’t even share as much as a hug or cheek kiss – but it’s an by-the-numbers subplot that tends to divert super-important resources (like audience attention spans) for the one and only reason moviegoers are there in the first place: To see Statham-as-Taylor take on a super-hungry, mega-shark in all its CGI glory and make the water safe again for swimming, boating, or related water sports.
We eventually get an eyeball-to-eyeball staring contest between Taylor and the megalodon, but by the time we get there, it feels like a night and a day have passed. There’s far too much bloat in The Meg, story wise (one-quarter a semi-rip-off of The Abyss, the rest begged, borrowed, and openly stolen from Jaws), character wise (too many characters, too many poorly developed characters), and even dialogue wise (too many groaners, not enough laugh-out-loud moments). And not Statham, a performer with more charisma than most Hollywood leads whose proven he’s willing to send up his onscreen persona (Spy), can’t do much to save The Meg from late-summer, also-ran status.