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Re-Watching 'The Meg' in Anticipation of 'The Meg 2'
My memory of 2018's The Meg was that it was bad. Still, I thought I should re-watch it because The Meg 2: The Trench opens this weekend, and I know I'm gonna go see it despite not enjoying the original. This is because i) I pretty much see everything regardless, and ii) it was directed by Ben Wheatley, who was a truly next-level out-of-left-field choice to helm that movie. Like, people think it's odd when a cool indie filmmaker like Greta Gerwig or Chloé Zhao make a big-budget studio movie based on a huge pre-existing IP? At least they were coming off of movies people had heard of! Wheatley's most notable films are unconventional art-house pictures, and I've never gotten the impression that they were ever seen by anyone except critics and a handful of film dorks. I just can't remember the last time I heard someone bring up High-Rise or Kill List or even Free Fire in casual conversation. But sure, let's get this dude to direct the Jason-Statham-fights-a-giant-shark sequel. Why not?
ANYWAY, The Meg was not directed by Ben Wheatley, or anyone particularly interesting. That gig was left to Jon Turteltaub, who is the very definition of 'journeyman director.' He has no authorial voice whatsoever, but he has made some competent, dare I say 'fun' movies (e.g., Cool Runnings, While You Were Sleeping), and some generally-inoffensive movies that made money (e.g., National Treasure and the one where a brain tumor gives John Travolta magic powers), and some real dogs with fleas (e.g., 3 Ninjas, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, and that movie where Anthony Hopkins thinks he's a monkey). In the annals of film history, his name shall be remembered, or not-so-remembered, alongside non-auteurs like Gary Fleder, Gregory Hoblit, and Robert Schwentke.
Unfortunately (for the viewer more than Turteltaub, who got paid regardless), The Meg is in the flea-ridden mongrel category. And it's a little baffling where things went so very wrong, because the movie has a very straightforward premise and about 87 billion other movies to use as a template. There's likely no world in which The Meg was "good," per se, but it could have been fun, at least, the way Alexandre Aja's Piranha 3D was a blast while also being garbage. It's the difference between eating at White Castle and eating at Arby's; neither is great, but one is good enough to at least warrant deliberately self-inducing diarrhea.
Now, to be fair to Turteltaub, The Meg was a way different assignment from Piranha 3D. Piranha 3D cost about $24 million; The Meg reportedly cost somewhere between $130 and $178 million, which means it really cost $200 million, at least, before marketing and distribution costs. Piranha 3D was based on an old Roger Corman movie that, despite being directed by Joe Dante and written by John Sayles, few people actually remember; The Meg is based on a best-selling novel that people have allegedly read (much like the music of Imagine Dragons or any primetime show on CBS, I've never personally met anyone who has willingly admitted to consuming it, even though it is, technically, a big hit). Piranha 3D was in development for about five years before it finally went into production; The Meg was in development for the better part of two decades, during which time it went through a plethora of potential directors, stars, and writers, including, but not limited to, George Clooney, Guillermo del Toro, Jan de Bont, Eli Roth, and the late, great, severely under-appreciated Jeffrey Boam, who is not credited on the final film, and was already dead for eighteen years by the time it came out.
Still, to spend that much time and money on a movie and wind up with this is a real affront to starving children everywhere.
And it didn't need to be this bad, because there is basically a Mad Libs version of the story, it's been told so many times: Highly-skilled, deeply-traumatized/disgraced hero gets back in the game to combat a new threat (see: Rambo III, Road House, Sudden Death, MacGruber, etc.), which, in this case, is a monster accidentally unleashed by greedy capitalists and/or well-intentioned-but-overzealous scientists (see: many versions of King Kong, most versions of The Mummy, Aliens, all the Jurassic Parks and Worlds, Deep Blue Sea, etc.). There's also the set-up for a romantic subplot in which the hero patches things up with his ex, which I think, at least in this instance, they are specifically pulling from The Abyss.
Specifically, what happens, in a nutshell, is this: Statham plays Jonas (dunno why they didn't just flat-out call him Jonah, but okay, we get the joke), who is a deep-sea-rescue-diver, and at the beginning of the movie, he's forced to leave some guys behind when his vessel is attacked by some giant monster - which, of course, turns out to be a Megalodon, or 'Meg.'
Only problem is, no one believes him that there was a giant monster, so he's tossed out on his ass. But then his ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee), and two other guys, including Hiro from Heroes, get trapped underwater, and in their last transmission, Lori says "Jonas was right" or something to that effect (and, to be clear, she means he was right about there being a giant underwater monster, not about whatever irreconcilable differences lead to their divorce). So even though he's retired and bitter, Jonas agrees to come back and help save Lori.
We all see where this going, right? Jonas will save Lori, and the couple will rekindle their romance; proof of the big scary monster will revive Jonas' career; and the greedy capitalists and/or well-intentioned-but-overzealous scientists will be eaten as punishment for unleashing the beast. Easy peasy.
Except only some of that stuff happens. And while not paying-off expectations can be a powerful way to greatly surprise the audience and/or comment on genre conventions, that's not what The Meg is doing. The Meg is just bad storytelling.
For example, Jonas does save Lori and prove that yes of course there is a giant monster down there, but they don't get back together - in fact, she's barely in the movie after that, and he starts a romance with an entirely different character, Suyin (Li Bingbing), who I assume has been shoehorned into the movie so they could release in the lucrative Chinese market (the character, as I understand it, was not in the novel - although apparently neither was Lori).
So why is Lori in the goddamn movie? Why didn't they amalgamate her character with Suyin? Did no one involved in the production think that audiences would find it weird to immediately pivot love interests?
Later, they put a tracking device on Meg, the idea being, presumably, that they're gonna ambush it. But then Meg grazes the big chain from a ship's anchor, and the tracking device comes off. And then... that's it. It doesn't come again. When Meg kinda shows up outta nowhere and almost eats Suyin a scene later, nobody even mentions the missing tracking device. So, I ask you again: Why is this in the goddamn movie?
And finally - and this is the part that really makes me furious - even though the character's name is fucking Jonas, and even though in the book he apparently does kill Meg by going inside of its stomach, no such thing happens here. WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK.
Truthfully, I'm not even sure what the stakes are for 99% of the movie. An entire town's well-being isn't at stake, as in Jaws, and after the first half hour or so of the movie, the only time the characters are ever in immediate danger is when they deliberately put themselves directly in the shark's path. Maybe the idea is that Meg is a threat to the ecosystem, but no one ever really says as much.
Meanwhile, since Suyin and Jonas have no prior history, and since the existence of Meg is proven like fifteen minutes into the movie, Jonas really has no arc; he doesn't get to hash it out Lori, the way Ed Harris and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio get to in The Abyss. And the protagonist of a silly action movie lacking an arc is not the biggest deal, unless your movie sucks, in which case it seems like a wasted opportunity. And The Meg sucks.
Do they at least get the part where the dummies who unleashed the monster are eaten right? Nope! They botched that, too! The dummy, in this case, is a billionaire played by Rainn Wilson. And yes, he does get eaten. In theory, at least, he even gets eaten for doing something bad! But not really: What he does is, after they manage to tag The Meg with a tracking device (or so they think), he lies to underlings and says he's gonna call the authorities to go get it... but instead he makes some of his other underlings fly him out to the ocean in the middle of night so they can kill Meg, because he's afraid he's legally liable for any damage it does while alive (which I'm not sure is true - yes, Meg found its way out of the depths because of a project he was funding, but that didn't break any laws, nor did it create Meg). And then of course that whole endeavor goes awry and Rainn Wilson gets eaten, and to make sure you know it was an unpleasant death, one of his arms gets chomped off and left outside Meg's mouth in the process.
So Rainn Wilson is basically executed for trying to do what every character in the movie wanted to do anyway - i.e., kill the enormous scary carnivorous thing. There's a kind of understanding we have with these types of movies, where we get that certain characters are gonna be executed for their sins; the worse the sin, the worse the death. Paul Reiser in Aliens, Wayne Knight and that lawyer guy in Jurassic Park, Vincent D'Onofrio in Jurassic World, American goddamn treasure Kevin J. O'Connor in the '99 version of The Mummy, Saffron Burrows in Deep Blue Sea - they're all douchebags, and most of them are responsible for a lot of innocent people dying, and so they get particularly unpleasant demises.
But when you present an awful end for a character who wasn't awful, there's a kind of cognitive dissonance that occurs. The most egregious recent example of this is the first Jurassic World movie, where there's this British lady who's planning her wedding instead of watching some kids, and I guess we're supposed to think she's a total B-word because she won't let her husband have a bachelor party, and then she gets lifted into the air by a pterosaur, tossed around, repeatedly dunked underwater in a pool and lifted back into the air, and, finally, eaten by a giant whale-dinosaur (I dunno what it's actually called). It's uncomfortably sadistic - she suffers so much, and she did so little to deserve it. What happens to Rainn Wilson here isn't quite as bad, because the character is an obnoxious billionaire and not just a 20-something bridezilla, but it's still not good.
Another big problem with The Meg is that it's rated PG-13, so the kills are mostly bloodless and not that fun. Not that a movie like this HAS to be rated R to be good... except it kind of does. I mean, if you're a once-in-a-lifetime genius like Steven Spielberg and you're making Jaws, you have an unrivaled ability to execute a suspense scene, and you don't need a lot of on-screen gore to make the movie exciting. But if you're Renny Harlin making Deep Blue Sea, you 1,000% do need the gore, because that's at least 70% of what the movie has going for it.
Lest you doubt this assertion, compare and contrast the beach buffet scenes from Jaws, Piranha 3D, and The Meg.
First, the one from Jaws, which is a mind-blowing masterpiece of craft from start to finish (Jaws, in case you haven't heard, is one of only three films ever made that is completely flawless from start to finish, along 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Godfather). Literally entire books have been written about the execution of this film, so I'm not gonna go into great detail here. But I would urge you to watch the sequence while keeping in mind the way Spielberg slowly ratchets up the tension until it's basically unbearable, so that when the shark finally attacks, it's legitimately horrifying, even if you barely ever see anything explicit:
Then there's Piranha. Aja and Turteltaub are both clearly riffing on, if not outright stealing from, Spielberg. But Aja changes the punchline, for lack of a better metaphor; Spielberg's joke is 'Who's on First?', but Aja's is 'The Aristocrats.' Maybe Aja felt there was nothing else to do with the scene that Spielberg hadn't already done, or maybe he felt he simply couldn't do as good as a job as Spielberg, or maybe he just really appreciates cinematic violence - after all, this is the guy who's breakthrough film, 2003's High Tension, begins with the killer getting head from an actual severed head. His best movies, like the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes and the Quentin Tarantino-championed Crawl, do not traffic in subtlety (although 2021's Oxygen was also very good, and I don't think that had any real violence in it whatsoever). Point being, his version of the scene just EXPLODES with a comedic level of cartoonish bloodshed, the execution of which is almost a Spielbergian art form unto itself.
Turteltaub, on the other hand, yet again sets up all the pieces in a way that never really pays off. That insufferable dude in the giant beach ball thing, for example - how do you put him in there and then not have a big bloody pop when he inevitably gets munched? Turteltaub has the ballon's cap fly at the camera, and it's a poor substitute... it just lacks the visceral kick of being gross. His response to 'Who's on First?' and 'The Aristocrats' is to tell a knock-knock joke.
I think this actually speaks to the biggest problem with The Meg: It is incredibly stupid, but it doesn't have the guts to admit as much and just have fun with the ridiculousness of everything. There is a moment near the end where Jonas is in a submersible being chased by Meg, and Lori, standing on the deck of a boat, can see this happening. So she calls out for Mac (Cliff Curtis, bless his poor heart), whose job title... I'm not even really sure what they said his job title is. But she's like "Mac, come quick!", and Mac comes out onto the deck, and now he, too, see Meg chasing Jonas. And he hops on the radio and he says "Jonas, what's going on down there?", and Jonas replies, "Trying not to get eaten." Well, gee, thanks for clearing that up, fellas. This scene is some real Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy shit and we would have no idea what was going on if you hadn't paid someone a great sum of money to write that exchange. High fives all around.
By making the Grand Guignol so very operatic in Piranha (and populating the movie with lots of cameos and unnecessary nudity), Aja acknowledges how silly his story is; dude is just having a grand old time making something he knows is campy. The Meg won't quite go there. It's neither as disciplined as Jaws nor as over-the-top as Piranha or Deep Blue Sea, and by splitting the difference, it ends up being nothing at all.