A mash-up of “Godzilla” and “Jaws” loosely based on Steve Alten’s 1997 novel, “The Meg” is essentially a live-action comic book whose derivative silliness ultimately sinks it, though as brainless popcorn entertainment it might suffice for undemanding viewers looking for an action fix. An imbalance in the Chinese-American production toward the Asian partner, however, means that audiences across the Pacific may find it more engaging escapist fare than those in America.
The hero of the piece—you might even call him a superhero, given his amazing deeds, which seem far beyond the powers of mortal men—is Jason Taylor, played with mostly stern countenance and a photogenic stubble of beard, not to mention impressive pecs, by Jason Statham. In an opening prologue he’s shown as a deep-sea rescuer who saves a bunch of researchers but must leave others in a submarine to an explosive fate, explaining that he had sighted a monster fish that made further efforts impossible. Ridiculed and maligned as a coward, particularly by one of the people saved, a doctor named Heller played by Robert Taylor, he retreated into retirement in Thailand, always with beer bottle in hand but remaining incredibly fit despite the prodigious alcoholic consumption.
But following the old “Godfather” formula, though Taylor tries to stay out of the game, they keep pulling him back in. A disaster occurs at a Chinese marine research platform investigating the mysteries of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the ocean. A small sub penetrates the chilling fog that obscures the bottom and finds a new world of unknown species. Before it can resurface, it’s attacked by some huge entity and its crew—a female commander named Lori (Jessica McNamee) and two scientists, a beefy fellow called The Wall (Ólarur Darri Ólafsson) and a genial Japanese named Toshi (Masi Oka)—are trapped. But who is to attempt a rescue?
Although Suyin (Li Bingbing), the spunky daughter of project director Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao), will attempt to get down to the stricken ship, there’s really only one man for the job, and so Zhang and his operations manager Mac (Cliff Curtis) are off to Thailand to persuade Taylor to take on the task. He initially refuses but when he learns that the commander who’s running out of air at the bottom of the drink is his ex-wife, he quickly changes his mind. Lickety-split he saves not only Suyin, keeping a promise to her adorable little daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai), but Lori and The Wall as well, earning an apology from Heller, now the operation’s medic, for his erstwhile hostility.
Unfortunately, the rescue effort has briefly ripped a hole in the fog layer guarding the deep trench and the giant fish—a prehistoric shark called the Megalodon—has escaped into open water. The rest of the movie is a shark hunt with Jason and the other members of the crew—including computer experts Jaxx (Ruby Rose) and DJ (Page Kennedy)—in pursuit of the beast. Along the way some will die as the humans try to kill the critter before it reaches a Chinese beach, where it looks like thousands of extras are pretending to have a wonderful time in the water, and gobbles them all up.
The special effects in “The Meg,” while hardly cutting-edge, are better than average, and may suffice for viewers satisfied with a roller-coaster ride, even if it’s one they’ve been on before. Everything else about the movie, directed without much imagination by Jon Turteltaub, is pure cookie-cutter too, down to the corny dialogue, studded as it is with juvenile one-liners, and the villain Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson), the callow billionaire who financed the project and, after cogitating on ways to profit from The Meg, finally decides to clean up the mess before the lawsuits start pouring in. Needless to say, he gets his just desserts in a crowd-pleasing scene toward the close.
Of course Morris is an ugly American, which is characteristic of a script that seems to gravitate to a Chinese POV even more than “Skyscraper,” which also catered to the Chinese market, did. One feels that the makers would have thought it somehow improper to portray the villain as a corrupt Chinese businessman; indeed, the Chinese characters here might occasionally be misguided or mistaken, but basically they’re all idealistic and heroic—even little Meiying (who quickly grows tiresome, one must add)—while most of the Americans are depicted, if not as villainous, as definitely imperfect, like the jovial but cowardly DJ, who’s treated as comic relief, or the grim Heller, who done Taylor wrong. Of course Statham’s Jason stands apart from everybody else, striding or swimming through the action like a colossus always ready with a plan of action—and a macho quip. But he’s a stateless fellow, unencumbered by nationality or, it would appears, the laws of physics.
It should be noted that the movie is pretty gore-free, considering the plot. There is one shot of a severed arm, but it’s brief and bloodless, and the deaths that do occur and handled swiftly and decorously by today’s standards. That extends to the beach melee at the close, in which the focus on a chubby adolescent and his mother is proof that the movie is aiming at the family trade.
One shouldn’t be too hard on “The Meg.” By making no pretense about trying to recapture the genuine tension and visceral impact of “Jaws,” while refusing to succumb to the pure inanity of the “Sharknado” franchise, it stakes out the same territory occupied by the recent “Jurassic” series, which has enjoyed considerable success, and you can understand the desire of its makers to try to meld the American and Chinese markets. But by straining for a broad appeal it comes off as a collection of elements cribbed from other, better movies and made as blandly unthreatening as possible. “The Meh” is more like it.