Let’s not talk about the title character of The Meg yet. The Ringer’s impromptu version of Shark Week has already got things covered with regard to the historical cinematic representation of the ocean’s apex predators, and where the prehistoric CGI leviathan fits in the man-eater hall of fame; the actual Meg (Schuster) even wrote something about the increasingly urgent attempt to demythologize shark attacks for future generations of swimmers and scientists. There’s nothing to say about the Meg that you don’t already know if you’ve watched the movie’s trailer, and since there is no twist in Jon Turteltaub’s tacky new movie to make us second-guess this assessment — i.e., it doesn’t turn out that the shark is normal-sized and the characters are all just really small, or that the Meg is a figment of their collective imagination, or just a metaphor for the outsized horror of global warming — we can spend time focusing on somebody more important: Jason Statham.
I really like Statham, and I don’t see any reason anyone should feel differently. “Jason makes everything better,” said Paul Feig in a 2015 Esquire feature about the actor, who had just completed his role in Spy, a Melissa McCarthy vehicle that Statham — playing an apoplectic secret agent whose bravado exists in inverse proportion to his skill set — commandeered like Chev Chelios going all GTA in Crank. Crank is a neo-exploitation classic (“I must be the most fucking genius of sick,” crows one character, as if it’s the movie’s motto) and Spy is a slick, demographic-diving crowd-pleaser. But Statham makes both better. Same goes for the wry, lovely, old-school caper comedy The Bank Job or the bruising, downbeat, Elmore Leonard–with-fight-scenes thriller Wild Card, two of the many (if not exactly countless) decent movies he’s appeared in over the years. However good these films are, they’d surely be worse without their sturdy star.
In a wonderful Cinema Scope appreciation that I sincerely hope Statham (or his wife) has printed out and put on the family refrigerator, Christoph Huber compares the former competitive diver turned male model turned Guy Ritchie fetish object to Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, praising not only his stoic charisma and physical prowess but his keen sense of his own screen persona and its myriad strengths and limitations. “Naturally averse to pretension, Statham has never overreached nor sold out, bringing the same conviction even to underdeveloped parts, through which he coasts on the strength of his innate cinematic charisma,” writes Huber, convincingly; along the way, he also cites the actor’s respect for stunt craft (including his call for a Best Stunt Oscar, which makes more sense than some other recent developments), and adds that “in these times of rampant CGI illusions, Statham has managed to maintain a contract with his audience that is still based on believability … and [he] is staunchly opposed to the digital onslaught.”
This vision of Statham as an analog badass, a flesh-and-blood Last Action Hero figurine holding back computerized overkill, glosses over his increasingly central participation in some pretty bloated franchise trash: Try to apply such sentimental, B-movie purism to, say, The Fate of the Furious or The Expendables 3 and you’ll be weeping crocodile tears. But it’s true enough that what Statham brings to the table — that combination of aerodynamic, bullet-headed handsomeness, springy agility, and end-of-the-bar charm (he must be the only British actor to never fake an American accent) can’t be faked.
It is through this complex dichotomy between authenticity and artificiality — and only this way, I swear — that it’s possible to make writing (or reading) about The Meg interesting. Attempting to contextualize this film through references to other movies about sharks is redundant, so I’ll switch up species and invoke some cinema about snakes. Because there is no serpentine equivalent to the legit, era-defining masterpiece that is Jaws, I’ll propose Anaconda, in which Jon Voight promised that “the jungle can kill you in a thousand ways” and proceeded to illustrate several of them, as a Pretty Good Bad Movie, a creature feature with a good ratio of future stars (Jennifer Lopez, Owen Wilson) to slumming character actors (Ice Cube, Eric Stoltz, Danny Trejo) to pretensions (absolutely none), as the ideal model for The Meg. Whereas the post-Anaconda Snakes on a Plane, which tried, unsuccessfully, to transubstantiate its Badness into So-Good-It’s-Badness, would be a worst-case scenario. (OK, fine, if we have to use shark movies, Anaconda = Deep Blue Sea and Snakes on a Plane = Sharknado + the Samuel L. Jackson parts of Deep Blue Sea; I will not mention shark movies again, I swear.)
Amazingly, The Meg finds an alternate option: It’s not a Pretty Good Bad Movie or a So Bad It’s Good Movie or even a So Bad It’s Bad Movie. It’s So Bad It’s Bland. The blandness begins with the film’s washed-out color palette, which denies us the expressionistic beauty that Jaume Collet-Serra cultivated in The Shallows (fuck, sorry, I know that’s another shark movie) and, more generally, the red-blooded pleasure that should go with a story about a monster eating people who are dumb enough to swim or experiment scientifically in its general vicinity. The lack of gore is both a visual and visceral disappointment, stranding the movie in a gutless PG-13 purgatory that, 30 years ago, a hellcat like Joe Dante would have exploited for every possible drop of plasma but Turteltaub (whose National Treasure movies are almost obscenely boring) defers to like the timid, late-career pro he is.
Everything in The Meg looks fake, from the New Zealand–as-coastal-China backdrop to the massive underwater research center to the actors themselves, none of whom have been costumed or photographed with any sharpness. (As an eccentric billionaire who suggests a Fly-style gene splice of Ian Malcolm and John Hammond, Rainn Wilson is unrecognizable, but in a vague, shapeless way.) This blurriness extends even to Statham, except for the scene where he pulls a Jack Reacher and casually shows off his impeccable 50-plus abs to researcher Suyin (Li Bingbing), who looks at least as overwhelmed by the sight as she did earlier in the film when she realized that her research pod was in the clutches of a (vague, blurry) giant squid.
So there it is, in both literal and metaphorical terms: Statham’s hard-cut humanity versus the phoniness of The Meg (and the Meg). Sadly, there are no winners here. In the early scenes, Statham’s undersea-rescue expert, Jonas, who has a Robert Hays–in-Airplane!-style drinking problem stemming from a past failure involving a demolished submersible, is shown bumming around Thailand in flip-flops, downing beers and harassing the locals; as soon as he’s airlifted in to try to save some members of Suyin’s research team, he succumbs to the listless, half-sarcastic, half-bored vibe that afflicts the film as a whole.
The great thing about Jaws (sorry) is that its tone is so elastic, moving from humor to horror to exhilaration to parody to tenderness; I’d say that the Good-Bad thing about Deep Blue Sea (Im sorry. Im trying to remove it) is that it at least toggles between camp and carnage. The Meg doesn’t have a variable or inconsistent tone — it has no tone at all. Even when an entire Chinese beachfront’s worth of bathers is being threatened, it never seems like anything is at stake. I’d say that making a $150 million U.S.-China coproduction feel so inconsequential is a kind of achievement in itself, but it’s not as if Turteltaub is aiming for any kind of satirical subversiveness. Instead, he just oversees the proceedings — the slow, perfunctory escalation of the plot; the laborious interpersonal dynamics that amount to nothing; the de rigeur environmentalist subtext about the dangers of splashing around in the deep end of the ocean — with an indifferent gaze. Directorially speaking, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes … you get the idea.
Statham’s got dead eyes in The Meg, too, and it’s a shame. It’s probably not a spoiler to say that Jonas — whose resourcefulness when it comes to stabbing, spearing, and slicing things suspiciously exceeds his underwater-rescue training — wins the battle in the end; there isn’t enough gravitas in a movie this dumb for any self-annihilating Captain Ahab heroics. But The Meg defeats him all the same.