From its “Oh, God, what was that?” opening to the climactic attack on a crowded beach, “The Meg” dutifully checks off the requisite shark-movie/monster-movie boxes as it clicks along. But because director Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure,” “Last Vegas”) is more interested in set pieces than in human beings, there’s very little to care about between appearances of the title creature.
But what a creature it is: a prehistoric Megalodon, extinct for 2 million years, that can chomp whales in half makes a worthy adversary. The film makes a convincing case that an underwater research station outfitted with all the latest tech could give this leviathan a fair fight. Between skirmishes, however, there’s some slack pacing over the course of 113 minutes that will leave you longing for the Meg’s return. (The film’s first 30 or 40 minutes offer way too much set-up and not nearly enough shark.)
Billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) flies 200 miles off the coast of China to the Mana One research facility he’s been funding to witness a great discovery — the Mariana Trench isn’t really the bottom of the ocean, but rather cloud cover for an even lower section of ocean that’s stayed separate. Naturally, that maiden voyage goes south in more ways than one, and a deadly prehistoric creature is loosed upon the Earth.
In movies like this, there’s always One Man to call, and our One Man is Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), a deep-water rescuer who’s been living in alcoholic solitude in Thailand after a botched rescue that he blamed on a giant sea creature, even though no one believed him. This is also the kind of film where you can be an alcoholic for five years but then just stop drinking when trouble arises. And also maintain the teeth and the body of Jason Statham.
(It’s interesting to contrast Statham’s backstory in “The Meg” to the first act of “Mission: Impossible – Fallout.” The former is chastised for leaving behind two crew members to save 11 others; in the latter, Ethan Hunt sacrifices the safety of the world to protect his team. What ultimately emerges from both conflicts is not so much a discussion about the good of the few versus the good of the many so much as underscoring that whatever the hero chooses to do, he’s in the right.)
With a crew of scientists — including Li Bingbing (“Transformers: Age of Extinction”) as Suyin, scientist and daughter of the facility’s founder, and Ruby Rose as Jaxx, a tattooed marine biologist — Jonas sets out to capture the Meg before it ravages populated areas. But the big fish has plans of its own, setting its heart on chomping up some tasty tourists at a crowded beach.
Screenwriters Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, adapting the novel by Steve Alten, overload “The Meg” with characters and backstories that wind up mattering very little; what’s the point, for instance, in making one of the undersea explorers (Jessica McNamee as Celeste) Jonas’ ex-wife when their relationship winds up getting the most glancing of screen time?
And the eventual love story between Jonas and Suyin not only feels tacked-on but also winds up the most chaste onscreen pairing since Aaliyah and Jet Li in “Romeo Must Die.” (A climactic kiss may seem unimportant, but its absence glares. Especially when the courtship involves the male lead rescuing his female counterpart something like four times.)
The film certainly nails its visual effects, particularly since they pretty much all occur in and around water. There’s a tangible menace to the Meg, and never a moment where clumsy compositing or animation spoils a scene. And since the creature is so realistic, those moments where it comes charging at our heroes, or sweeping through a crowded sandbar, deliver the kind of chills that you want from a movie like this.
But those moments are few and far between, and apart from a few courageous sacrifices, none of the human characters do anything surprising; instead, they hew to a collection of trite screenwriting tropes. (After the last few “Transformers” and “Pacific Rim” movies, we can now officially classify “rich American doofus mangles Mandarin” as a blockbuster cliché.)
For every funny line, like a passing reference to “Finding Nemo,” we get over-dramatic doozies, like scientist Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao, “The Wedding Banquet”) intoning, “We did what we always do: Discover, then destroy.”
Audiences in the mood to be scared will certainly send their popcorn flying during a few tense moments of “The Meg.” But they’ll also wish the movie had bothered to find an equivalent to Robert Shaw’s USS Indianapolis speech in “Jaws.” When the human characters are reduced to chum, it’s hard to care about them getting eaten.