Kantemir Balagov has the confidence to tell his story chiefly through the faces of his characters as well as their placement in the frame, thereby…
Who could have guessed that the scene in "Jaws" where Sheriff Brody says they're going to need a bigger boat would spawn 40+ years' worth of thrillers? Ever since Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Peter Benchley's novel became one of the top-grossing films of all time, studios have tried to bite off a piece of its success by making their own nature-in-revolt films—as well as films about inhuman and even mechanical stalkers that, to quote that same film's ichthyologist Hooper, exist only to move, kill, and make more of their ilk. And, both viscerally in terms of budget, they're constantly trying to up the stakes: the bigger boat syndrome.
It started in the late 1970s with movies like "Grizzly," "Piranha," "Orca," "Tentacles" and "Prophecy" (where the monster was a giant grizzly bear mutated by pollution). The homage/theft continued, in disguised fashion and on a parallel track, in the stalker movies of the late '70s and early '80s (particularly "Halloween," the original "Terminator," and the first "Alien," which was sold to its studio as "Star Wars" meets "Jaws' in a haunted house), and more overtly through the likes of "Anaconda" and "Lake Placid," and finally this year's "The Meg," about an enormous prehistoric shark that escapes from the bottom of the ocean and wreaks havoc on the surface. Directed by Jon Turteltaub ("National Treasure") and starring bullet-headed scowler Jason Statham, "The Meg" is a modestly bloody, sometimes sentimental, mostly lighthearted fusion of "Jaws" and another Spielberg classic, "Jurassic Park." The latter was recently rebooted as "Jurassic World"; a key scene in that one showed patrons in a Sea World-type arena cheering as a Jaws-like great white was dangled in midair as bait for a sharklike aquatic dinosaur known as a Mosasaurus.
Tracing the chain of associations, remakes, inspirations, and ripoffs that brought us to this point would've been an irrelevant film nerd's exercise if "The Meg" (based on a 1997 novel by Steve Allen, itself hugely "Jaws"-inspired) didn't all but compel it, by serving up its own version of nearly every memorable moment from the original "Jaws" plus several of its sequels. The list includes the mass terror in the harbor filled with bathers; scenes where the heroes tag the shark with a tracking device and try to kill it with explosives and harpoons; some helicopter action plus a version of the teens-on-a-raft section of the second "Jaws," a moderately scary sequence in an underwater laboratory reminiscent of moments in "Jaws 3-D"; and a man-on-fish showdown reminiscent of Quint's final struggle with the shark in the original "Jaws" (but with a happy ending). Reproducing main elements from Allen's book and inventing many more, the film is so shamelessly indebted to Spielberg's work that during a climatic moment, Harry Gregson-Williams' score alludes to John Williams' iconic "Here comes the teeth" theme. Turteltaub and the movie's four credited screenwriters also work in references to "Moby-Dick" and the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale (Staham's character is even named Jonas). The story even resolves itself with a slight nod to one of Jonah's threats against the Leviathan, to leash the creature by its tongue and let the other fish eat it.
Statham, who like his contemporary Dwayne Johnson is happy to flirt with self-parody, plays Jonas as an obsessive but disgraced figure, taking the character seriously while sending him up a bit. The character is a search-and-rescue badass written off by superiors as a coward. He abandoned a nuclear sub on the bottom of the ocean after he became convinced that a giant creature was what wrecked it, and that the beast was certain to kill everyone still left alive if he didn't pull the plug on the mission. Like Ripley in the second "Alien," he's the only person who can verify the existence of the monster. No one believes him.
So of course when we first meet him he's an embittered alcoholic loner. The pompous billionaire who funded the research station (Rainn Wilson) enlists two of Jonas' trusted colleagues, Cliff Curtis' Mac and Winston Chao's Zhang, to beg Jonas to help them rescue a submersible containing Jonas' ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee). The vehicle has coincidentally gotten trapped on the same stretch of ocean floor where the hero first encountered the giant shark known as the Megalodon. The Meg, as it's cutely referred to, escapes its confinement. Ships go down, people get torn apart in the water. And we're off to the races.
There's a parallel story that posits Zhang's daughter, Suyin (Bingbing Li), an oceanographer and single mom to an adorable young daughter named Meiying (Sophia Cai), as the main character. Whenever the hardbitten Jonas is in the presence of either of them, he warms up and smiles. The film genuflects in the direction of giving both these adults a happy ending by rewarding their heroism with an intact nuclear family that fills their empty spaces. Meiying gets a dad to replace the worthless biological father who abandoned her; Suyin finally gets an intellectual partner and best friend worthy of her own father, a paragon of healthy masculinity and the most important adult in her life; and Jonas gains reason to trust humankind again and look forward to the future rather than dwelling on the past. The movie doesn't hammer too hard on any of this stuff—a rare instance where it gets things just about right, rather than doing too much or too little, which is more often the case.
The movie's never dull, frequently funny and occasionally inspired, particularly in the climactic shark assault on a marina filled with bathers. But it feels not-quite-there somehow. Despite the shark-on-human and human-on-shark violence, and a fair amount of (mostly fish-related) blood and gore, it doesn't have much lasting impact either as a high seas thriller or a science fiction fantasy. And there are plentiful signs that it was undermined in the editing. A lot of the cutting, not just from scene to scene but within scenes, is choppy and awkward, failing to show you what you want or need to see at the moment when you ought to. And Statham's granite-faced determination in the action sequences promises a much rougher adventure than is actually delivered. (Statham has indicated that Turteltaub shot the film as a ridiculously nasty "R" thriller but it was cut to earn a PG-13 rating.)
The most impressive thing about "The Meg" is that it manages to have any personality at all, given its obsessive self-awareness of being a "Jaws" ripoff and its equally blatant status as a deal memo that somehow managed to get filmed. It's obviously a project that wouldn't exist without the Chinese filmgoing market—it's set in the Pacific Rim, prominently features Asian stars who aren't names here, and never once mentions the United States as a factor in any of the main action. The almost religious sentimentalization of motherhood here feels more Chinese than American. So does the dialogue in which characters express remorse over failures that caused loss of life (American films rarely pause for such self-flagellation) and the very particular way that Jonas talks to the little girl (revealing a tenderness that, in an American movie, would probably be presented as being at odds with his seething machismo).
When the prehistoric shark is fixating on tiny humans, as if the terms of Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick's relationship had been reversed, the film moves into the realm of a Toho Studios kaiju movie, in which the humans do battle with gigantic rubbery creatures who amount to manifestations of their own neuroses and ambitions. The marina sequence boasts candy-colored production design and numerous, borderline-slapstick gags, including an extended bit involving a wedding party and an impeccably groomed poodle, and numerous shots of oblivious bathers hamster-wheeling across the ocean's surface in big plastic bubbles. It's like something that South Korea's Bong Joon-Ho ("The Host," "Okja"), a great pop filmmaker with a social satirist's tendencies, might stage, though he surely would've done more with the components.
There's a lot of unrealized potential here. The film needed to be at least 30% wilder than it is, and to take an important cue from great Asian adventure filmmakers and not get too hung up on maintaining a consistent tone throughout every part of the story. "The Meg" often feels as if it's holding something in—like it doesn't feel free enough to be what it truly wants to be. Maybe a superior sequel to this film is biding its time down there on the ocean floor, waiting to be let out.
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