Two months ago, I visited Long Beach to interview Chris Lowe, the director of CSU–Long Beach’s Shark Lab, for a story about increased shark sightings in California. Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Lowe about his feelings on shark movies. The genre, which got its start with Jaws in 1975, has carved out its own space within horror films and has even expanded to children’s movies over the past 15 years.
But despite the now very large collection of these films available for viewing, Lowe said he doesn’t watch shark movies; they are notoriously inaccurate, after all, and being that he trafficks in the science of sharks and hard facts, that would be like a historian sitting down to watch 300 or a journalist taking tips from Drew Barrymore’s character in Never Been Kissed. But he is often asked to review them. “It’s horrible,” Lowe said. “I mean I get it. I understand the appeal. I understand that people like those sorts of things. … [But] they’re horribly inaccurate. They never ask a shark biologist for any help before they make these things.”
When I mentioned the film The Meg, which came out Friday, and explained that its premise revolves around a prehistoric megalodon shark terrorizing the Pacific, he was less than impressed, deadpanning, “[They’ve] been extinct for a long, long time.”
That they have—for more than 2 million years, actually. But that didn’t stop Steve Alten from writing Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, the book that the film is based on, in 1997, nor has it stopped Alten from espousing his … optimistic views that megalodons could still exist at every stop on The Meg’s press tour. He told Film Goblin that the book’s idea came to him while “reading a TIME mag article on the Mariana Trench and hydrothermal vents,” and that his immediate thought was, “What if that giant shark was still alive, living in the abyss?” Alten also told The Hollywood Reporter that “they may still be out there. There’s no proof that they’re not out there because we’ve never explored more than 5 percent of the ocean.”
I am not a scientist, and even if I were, it’s virtually impossible to prove a negative. So I won’t throw too much shade onto Alten’s beliefs here, despite the consensus among leading researchers and marine biologists that the megalodon is definitely, for sure, take-it-to-the-bank extinct. But there are some facts, figures, and scenarios in the film The Meg that we can shed some light on. So, taking inspiration from New York magazine’s Gossip Girl reality index, here is The Meg Reality Index, where I award or subtract points arbitrarily based on how realistic something seems in the film. Let’s kick things off!
- Despite the entire concept of the movie revolving around a megalodon or (SPOILER) megalodons still being alive, the scientists in the film do acknowledge that the animal has been commonly believed to be extinct for millions of years. So the film’s creators get a plus-2 for not completely glossing over basic science.
- Mana One—the research station located 200 miles off the Chinese coast where the movie begins—is very high-tech, and I could definitely see an eccentric billionaire choosing to dump his money into a middle-of-the-ocean lab that’s researching a highly specific biological phenomenon rather than doing something with this riches that could actually help humanity. Plus-3.
- Early in the film, when Mana One’s crew is investigating the “false bottom” of the Mariana Trench (we’ll get to that later), they see a megalodon fighting a giant squid. Though the megalodon part of that equation isn’t factual, we’ll give this a plus-1 because sharks and giant squids have been thought to battle in the past.
- Not long after the megalodon-vs.-squid incident, Noted Action Hero Jason Statham (a.k.a. Jonas, a veteran diver) shows up to rescue a submarine crew trapped at the bottom of the trench, as he does in these kinds of movies. After resurfacing, Suyin, a Mana One scientist played by Chinese actress Bingbing Li, goes to Jonas’s room to thank him for saving her coworkers and apologize for some nasty things she’s said about him. There, she encounters a very freshly showered, very nearly naked Jonas, and a budding romance begins. Statham’s abs alone get a plus-5, with another plus-3 because finding love while you’re battling a giant prehistoric monster seems like the best use of your emotions during what could otherwise be a very stressful time. (Maybe I’ve watched too many rom-coms.)
- Shortly after Jonas and Suyin start making eyes at one another, there’s a big meeting held in Mana One’s conference room to decide what to do about the meg. During the meeting, Jonas, acting as the sage diver who has now battled the megalodon twice in his career and is for sure too old for this shit, pipes up and says, “Man vs. meg isn’t a fight—it’s a slaughter.” That earns him a plus-4 because, as we see later in the film, it’s accurate and it’s also a quote that I, as a person named Meg, plan to tattoo across my forehead.
- Finally, the death of the meg, or, should I say, the death of Meg 2 because, remember, THERE ARE TWO. Meg 1 was killed by humans not long after it escaped, but then Meg 2 showed up out of the blue (literally), and it was a whole thing. Meg 2 proves to be much larger and much harder to kill than Meg 1, which is why it takes until the end of the movie for the scientists to figure out how. There are parts of this scene that are unrealistic, which we will get to later, but there are two pieces that are real. First, Jason Statham gets a plus-1 for knowing to stab Meg 2 in the eye, one of the shark’s few vulnerable spots. Second, post-stabbing, Meg 2 is eventually brought down in a feeding frenzy when other, smaller sharks band together to finish it off. Now, sharks aren’t known for eating their own—and they’re definitely not known for going after sharks that are larger than they are—but sharks do exhibit feeding frenzies around whale carcasses, so this is fairly realistic. Plus-1.
- We’re first introduced to Mana One when Rainn Wilson, who plays the the hip, Nike-wearing, sweatshirt-clad billionaire funding the project, arrives to tour the research station. Wilson is a great actor, and he tries his hardest to achieve the right mixture of superiority, aloofness, and mild villainy that comes with playing one of these stereotypical Rich Dudes, but he’s much too funny to be convincing as a billionaire. After getting dismissed by Statham early in the film, Wilson says, “He looks heroic and he walks fast, but he’s kind of got a negative attitude.” And when he falls off the boat during a nighttime meg-hunting raid, he goes full Dwight Schrute and yells out, “Wait, you idiots, wait!” His character is enjoyable, so he gets only a minus-1, but he’s much too personable to be believable in his role.
- When Wilson gets to Mana One, the team explains to him that it plans to explore the depths of the Mariana Trench in an attempt to prove that what scientists have long thought was the trench’s bottom is a just a layer that separates an isolated ecosystem from the rest of the ocean. Right away, they’re getting a Minus-5 for this, because if there were actually a false bottom to the trench, James Cameron would have made a movie about it by now. Later, we discover that objects (like a submarine) can pass through this almost-cloud-like layer, but animals (like a megalodon) cannot. Eventually, through a series of blundering events, the team blows a hole through the layer and, you guessed it, two megalodons escape. Given the large lab and extensive resources these people have, they probably should have figured out that disrupting this layer was a possibility, so they get an extra minus-3 for not checking their work.
- I’m handing out an automatic minus-3 for the film’s claim that a megalodon could survive at the bottom of the trench. Unlike great whites, megalodons preferred the warmer ocean water found between 50 and 200 feet deep, not the cooler temperatures of deeper water, and would not have found their way to the bottom of the 6.8-mile-deep trench.
- Next, some quick hits. The film claims megalodons grew to be between 70 and 90 feet long, when most research suggests somewhere around 60 feet is their maximum size (minus-2). The film’s scientists also claim that megs were capable of biting full-sized whales in half. It’s true that megalodons and whales were natural enemies, and that megalodons were known to feed on whales, but many whales were the same size as, or larger than, megalodons, and megalodons had to resort to disabling a whale by biting off its fins before it could fully attack—which is quite different than biting a whale in two (minus-1).
- Once the movie megalodons are free, the crew is tasked with fixing their grave, grave error. So they set out aboard a ship to track the shark (at this point they think there’s only one) and try to kill it. In order to track the shark, they must attach a receiver to its dorsal fin, which can apparently be done only by a person who is within 100 feet of the shark. Naturally, Jason Statham dives into the ocean alone to swim after the beast, receiving the advice that the shark won’t attack him as long as he doesn’t panic (OK). The idea that any one person would go mano-a-mano against a 70-to-90-foot-long shark is ridiculous, even if that person is Jason Statham, who free-dived with 25 to 30 bull sharks in preparation for this movie, which he filmed using zero real sharks. Minus-5.
- Finally, there’s the sequence of events that leads to the death of Meg 2, which includes Statham using his underwater glider ship to slice through the meg’s stomach and ends with him maintaining a grip on the shark as it rises up out of the water and having enough presence of mind to stab it in the eye in the process. Both actions are incredibly heroic, and also incredibly unbelievable. Minus-2.
As Lowe said, shark movies aren’t realistic, and they’re especially not realistic when you’re basically crossing Jaws with Jurassic Park and reviving a giant water beast from extinction. But the movie is still fun, and if you’re interested in seeing Jason Statham toss out sassy one-liners, a very adorable child pull a Parent Trap–like move, and a big freaking shark mow down large groups of humans, then I’d recommend The Meg. Besides, it’ll make you feel a whole lot better about the oh-so-small 10-to-20-foot sharks that do populate our waters.