A curious thing happened with The Meg. I was thrilled to see it opening weekend, though try as I did, I couldn’t help but let the smattering of early reviews available color my expectations. It sounds counter-intuitive, and it is, because when I read tepid or outright negative reviews, my mind is primed. I hyper-focus on the ostensible criticisms and find it difficult in the moment to isolate my own perception from the perceptions of others. I left the theater, then, disappointed, my thoughts parallel almost verbatim with the reviews I’d read; The Meg is big and messy, a missed opportunity, too safe, etc. Some of that, of course, is true independent of the reviews– The Meg too often plays like a nurse shark when it should bite with the ferocity of a great white– but some of that criticism was hastily assembled, unfair constraints on a movie with a clearly delineated purpose.
I caught The Meg several more times on cable. At first, I’d watch a scene or two, turning it on as background noise and watching from wherever I jumped in. Curiously, though, I continued to do this, slowly over time watching more and more. After a few weeks, I took the plunge and decided to dedicate time to watch it in its entirety from beginning to end. After this decimal point viewing– I’d seen it somewhere around 3.2 times– I changed my mind. I liked The Meg.
Jason Statham and Li Bingbing make an endearing central duo, with both given equal opportunity to dive into the deep waters of the Pacific Ocean and go neck-and-neck with the titular Megalodon. The visual effects, too, while inconsistent, are convincing enough to never compromise audience immersion– for most of the run time, it feels like there’s a fifty-foot shark making quick work of an international actors’ grab-bag. Sure, some of the humor feels too workshopped and sterilized, and in the early goings, product placement figures more prominently than the monstrous Meg– hope you like Nikes because you’ll be seeing several close-up shots– but it’s in service to something much larger, in more ways than one.
The Meg by most metrics might seem incompatible within the pantheon of classic, giant monster cinema. The Kaiju are revolutionary symbols against an imperialist, capitalist culture, and even the giant ants of Gordon Douglas’s Them! are monstrous symbols of an increasingly nuclearized world. The Meg, with Rainn Wilson spouting one-liners and a preeminent focus on just how damn well Jason Statham can dive (spoiler: he does it really well), looks at least ostensibly to be negotiating considerably less. Though a misnomer, The Meg might well be considered pure, escapist entertainment, but I’m not quite sure it is– I think it’s so much more than that.
Granted, no entertainment is disposable, and in the purest sense, escapist entertainment is really no entertainment at all. Even movies predicated on giant, prehistoric sharks are negotiating something, and any subsequent entertainment derived therein is from the confirmation or rejection of an audiences’ own implicit value system. The Meg, of course, exists in a globalized world, and as a U.S.-China co-production, its images of a giant shark terrorizing Sanya Bay (with PG-13 carnage) yield considerable, metatextual appeal.
Politics aside– I have neither the interest nor knowledge to sufficiently extrapolate U.S.-China relations here– The Meg is still a great deal of fun. It’s brave people doing brave things, and while it might be promulgated with the sensitivity and nuance of a children’s book– strong man save woman from shark! – it’s still a worthwhile enterprise. There’s a running joke in my house, for instance, that The Meg is my mom’s favorite movie. It felt like every time she turned on the TV, she was flipping over to The Meg.
That alone is something special, the idea that a movie– even one about giant sharks devouring puny humans– can act as a beacon of comfort and familiarity. There’s something placid and almost protective about it, like an orb of solitude and equanimity is erected around for the duration of the two-hour runtime. That’s a singular tool of cinema, sure, but genre films in particular seem especially adroit at doing it.
I certainly wish The Meg had been more. The unfinished death scenes, including a Jaws homage with a severed head, sound incredible, and it’s a shame that the VFX work is incomplete to the point that we’ll never get to see them. John Turteltaub, however, still delivered the goods. The requisite shark carnage is there. The thrills are there. The fun is there. There’s just not enough time in this world to not celebrate the magnificent, giant, cinematic monsters privileged enough to make it to screen. Like a thunderous, prehistoric roar, if something like The Meg calls, you can count on me answering.