Tuesday, August 28, 2018
“Jaws” for the “SpongeBob” generation, “The Meg” (** OUT OF ****) proves bigger isn’t always better when it comes to atmospheric suspense and a bloodthirsty R-rating. “National Treasure” director Jon Turteltaub and “Life of Pi” scenarist Dean Georgaris with “Battleship” co-scripters Jon & Eric Hoeber have expunged all vestiges of horror from Steve Alten’s twenty-year old bestseller “The Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror” and pared it down to broad essentials with a wholesome PG-13 rating. Moments that would have benefited from those deplorable, but effective jump scares are nowhere to be experienced. “The Meg” does manage with its $130 million budget to attain an aura of credibility. The people who made “The Meg” don’t exploit the camp factor like The Syfy Channel’s preposterous, so-awful-it's-good “Sharknado” franchise. The Megsters are playing everything for authentic thrills. Victims are eaten without buckets of blood. Indeed, you can see only one victim in the Meg’s attack on a popular Asian beach. The leviathan glides beneath hundreds of sun bathers elbow-to-elbow without munching them. In Alten’s novel, a surfer swerved his board into the Meg’s gaping maw. Admittedly, the 3-D effects add a modest dimension, but not enough to make you dread each appearance of the Carcharocles Megalodon like “Jaws” with its Great White shark. Principally, ‘the chomp’ constitutes a fundamental element in any scary shark movie. Sadly, we never see anybody chomped the way the Great White in “Jaws” chomped Robert Shaw. A scene does occur which imitates Samuel L. Jackson’s demise in “Deep Blue Sea” when the shark chomped him ‘air jaws’ style.
Jonas Tyler (Jason Statham of “The Expendables”) rescues eleven sailors stranded in a sunken submarine in an early scene in “The Meg” before some mysterious battering ram of sorts implodes the hull. Jonas believes a prehistoric shark may have destroyed the sub. He faces reprimands galore, particularly from the sub’s doctor, Heller (Robert Taylor of TV’s “Longmire”), who labels him a coward as well as a lunatic. Jonas argues everyone would have died if he’d gone back after the two remaining sailors. Heller is adamant about Jonas’ cowardice. In a rare exception to the rule, the magnitude of the film’s opening gambit overshadows the novel’s first scene where Jonas—suffering from too many hours on duty--reacts suddenly to the appearance of a Megalodon. Reacting in panic, our overwrought oceanographer blew ballast and his deep-water aquatic sub ascended to the surface like a Polaris missile. Miraculously, Jonas survived the encounter, while his two scientific colleagues perished in the process. Afterward, when Jonas swore he saw a Megalodon, his incredulous superiors refused to swallow his saga about the prehistoric predator and discredited him as well as court-martialed him despite evidence that proved what his story. A rival Navy officer tampered with the evidence and tossed a Meg tooth--wedged in the underwater Naval craft--overboard. A situation similar to the novel occurs when oceanographers are trapped at the bottom of the sea and a Megalodon attacked because their lights exacerbated the creature in its habitat that lies far beneath what was thought to be the bottom of the ocean. As it turns out, there is more ocean below a layer of hydrogen sulfide that forms a thermocline. Billionaire Jack Morris (grossly miscast comic actor Rainn Wilson of “Galaxy Quest”) has erected a state-of-the-art underwater research facility code-named Mana One to study those lower depths of the briny blue. The entire set-up looks like something out of a James Bond movie. Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao of “The Wedding Banquet”) and his colleagues are studying heretofore unexplored depths of the Marianas Trench. The lady-in-charge, Lori (Jessica McNamee of “CHIPs”), is piloting a submersible with Zhang’s son, Toshi (Masi Oka of TV’s “Heroes”), and an obese guy called ‘The Wall’ (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson of “Contraband”), when an unknown force smashes into them and disables their craft. James "Mac" Mackreides (Cliff Curtis of “Training Day”) convinces Dr. Zhang that the only man who can get his son and their colleagues out of the trench is his old friend, Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), and they recruit the reluctant diver, who had vowed to never descend again. Although Jonas rescues them, the thermocline dissipates enough for the 75-foot Megalodon to escape and terrorize the world.
Basically, if you’ve read the gruesome novel, as I did recently, you’re going to be appalled that the writers have eliminated the best scenes. The characters and the cover-up that gave the novel momentum as well as a long-standing feud between the Navy and the protagonist who had been summarily drummed out of the service for panicking during an incident in the Marianas Trench are AWOL. The filmmakers have altered significantly the Nautilus scene where the Meg pummeled the iconic sub into submission. Instead, they use a sub earlier in the action than a wrecked submersible for Jason Statham’s opening scene where a doctor accuses Jonas of cowardice. Not surprisingly, the novel “The Meg” surpasses the “The Meg” movie. Combine this wannabe “Jaws” with “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea,” and you’ve got this tolerable nonsense. Incredibly, the Megalodon shark plays second fiddle to Jason Statham and the diverse cast. Statham swam with the British National Diving Team and finished 12th in the World Championships in 1992. At age 51, he looks at home in the drink. Hard as it is to believe, the scenes between Statham and the members of an ocean-going shark think-tank generate more interest than the scenes with the runaway shark. Mind you, the CGI is far better than it should be for a B-movie epic, but nothing about the Megalodon is as remotely creepy as the Great White shark in “Jaws” or comparably the revenge-mind killer whale in “Orca.” If you cannot find “Jaws,” then “Deep Blue Sea,” “The Shallows,” and “47 Meters Down” would make worthy substitutes if you’re disposed to postpone until “The Meg’ swims into home video. Altogether, “The Meg” is a polished sea monster yarn that lacks bite.
(Author's Note: Apparently, there is a bloodier version of "The Meg," and I've heard that it may wind up on home video as 'the director's cut.')