The Meg is junk made with just enough conviction and craft to convince you that it’s better than it is—or, at the very least, better than it needs to be. But don’t let lowered expectations overcome your faculties: This low-rent, very dumb shark movie coasts only so far on its guilty-pleasure vibes. Even Jason Statham fans—a loyal, endlessly patient throng that includes yours truly—will recognize that this is more of the same B-movie detritus from the actor. He doesn’t even get to karate chop the mighty Megalodon.
Statham plays Jonas, a former deep-sea rescue diver who is Haunted By His Past. (Five years ago, he saved a portion of his crew but had to make the tough decision to let the rest die, lest they all perish.) Since then, he’s gone to seed, finding relief at the bottom of a beer bottle, but after another underwater team is stranded on the floor of the Pacific Ocean—and one of the team members is his ex-wife—he reluctantly volunteers to save them.
But there is a catch, my friends. This is no ordinary rescue mission: With perfect thematic rhyming to Jonas’ previous situation, the underwater team has been attacked by a 75-foot shark known as the Megalodon, which was thought to have been extinct for centuries. (Five years ago, he had sworn he’d encountered this massive beast, but his proclamations were dismissed as hallucinations by his superiors, who assumed he’d been under for too long.) With the help of Suyin (Li Bingbing), a flirty scientist, and loyal station chief Mac (Cliff Curtis), who overseas the super-expensive facility funded by billionaire entrepreneur Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson), Jonas is determined to stop this leviathan.
Director Jon Turteltaub (While You Were Sleeping, Last Vegas) has too much pride or lack of nerve to turn The Meg into a blatant so-bad-it’s-good cheese-fest. Wilson’s character is such an unsubtle heel—rich, arrogant, dumb—that it seems all but assured that Jack is going to bite it in a pretty colorful way. But for the most part the film, which is adapted from Steve Alten’s 1997 novel, bravely aspires to respectability. Working with composer Harry Gregson-Williams and Clint Eastwood’s longtime cinematographer Tom Stern, Turteltaub keeps everything moving at a pretty brisk pace, stopping occasionally to gamely try to build up a little emotional resonance between Jonas and his fellow crew members.
In bits and pieces, The Meg can be diverting, trashy fun as the filmmakers concoct cool ways for a gigantic shark to unleash hell in short order. (Spoiler Alert: When any of the humans assume the shark can’t do something, the shark quickly demonstrates that it can.) But it’s not just the subpar special effects that underline what a fundamentally half-assed production this is—the hokey dialogue, strained stabs at pathos, and predictable gif-friendly set pieces all suggest a general laziness. Nothing in The Meg is particularly terrible, but too much of it has been allowed to be “fine.” Trying to achieve anything greater or grander would have been too taxing, apparently.
Statham has made a career outshining his shoddy starring vehicles, and The Meg is somewhere near the middle of his oeuvre quality-wise. He and Bingbing have a few sparks, and the veteran action star flashes the same rugged authority that always assures audiences that they’re in good hands. But because he doesn’t get to brandish any of the rock-’em-sock-’em moves that are his trademark, The Meg feels like a waste of Statham’s precise, albeit limited talents. Lots of actors can look compelling while piloting an underwater submersible—or, more accurately, sitting in a studio surrounded by a green screen—so there’s nothing particularly thrilling about watching our man Statham do it. At least there’s some compensation for those who want to stare at him shirtless for a few minutes.
More giggle-inducing than terrifying, The Meg throws enough incidents at you that it simulates the feeling of being entertaining. Nothing sticks—not any of the heroics, not any of the scares, and certainly not any of the deaths—and because it’s so dutifully executed it mostly just washes over you, leaving almost no impression. For a movie about a humongous, relentless killing machine that torpedoes through the water in search of prey, The Meg barely makes a ripple.
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writers: Dean Georgaris and Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber (screenplay); Steve Alten (novel)
Starring: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis
Release Date: August 10, 2018
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.