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Non-Review Review: The Meg

The Meg is proof that bigger is not always better.

There are moments when The Meg works beautifully, the film embracing its ridiculous concept by going all-in on a couple of absurdly heightened images. There are a number of shots in The Meg, particularly towards the climax, that are gleefully and unapologetically “too much.” It would undercut these moments to discuss them in any great detail in a review of the film, particularly since they are the moments when everything in the film seems to click into place. In these beats, there is a reckless abandon, as if the film understands the appeal of “Jason Statham in Jurassic Shark.”

Lifeboats find a way.

Unfortunately, these moments serve to highlight what is missing from so much of the rest of the film. The Meg is a movie committed to the idea of “more”, but is more invested in promise than in delivery. Everything in The Meg happens at breakneck pace, to the point where the first act of the film might make a compelling blockbuster on its own terms, given room to breath. However, like the sea-faring predator that inspired it, The Meg is eager to get to the next thing and the next thing after that. The result is a movie that feels rushed, but never urgent.

The Meg is so busy trying to heighten its stakes and its scale that it never quite manages to establish them.

Don’t bait him!

It is interesting to wonder if this is an inevitable result of the blockbuster arms race, of advances in special effects that allow studios and directors to realise destruction and action on a scale that was previously impossible. Everything is larger than the last thing, everything is bigger and more bombastic. The rallying cry of the modern blockbuster is “more”, in every sense. Blockbuster budgets are growing ever-larger. Blockbuster runtimes are getting ever longer. Blockbuster scale is increasing ever faster.

The Meg is the living embodiment of this simple reality. It is a familiar film in terms of genre. It is a story about a group of industrious adventurers on the high seas who find themselves facing off against a monstrous beast. There are countless examples in both literature and cinema; The Old Man and the Sea, Moby Dick, Jaws, Deep Blue Sea, In the Heart of the SeaThe Shallows. However, The Meg has decided that its unique approach to this concept will be to simply increase the scale dramatically.

Look into his cold, dead eyes.

The Meg is a big film in just about every way. The shark at the centre of the film is bigger. It is a lot bigger than the Great White Sharks in Jaws and Deep Blue Sea. However, The Meg doubles down on this and decides to commit to the idea of exponential scale. The shark at the centre of The Meg is swiftly revealed to be even bigger than it first appears. In an audacious plot development, The Meg decides not just to one-up other shark films, but also itself.

However, The Meg also goes for bigger in terms of narrative and scale. The Meg covers an impressive amount of storytelling real estate, its three acts effectively transitioning between the climaxes of three very different shark-related films. It is not uncommon for films to switch premise or setting over their runtime; Jaws has a really great pivot at the midpoint. However, The Meg alternates between three states of heightened climax: a deep-sea rescue in a lost ocean kingdom, an attack on a base and an old-fashioned shark-hunt, and an epic high-stakes apocalyptic showdown.

Dog food.

The Meg is able to go bigger and bolder in part due to shifts in the technology rendering these special effects, affording the production team more processing power than they ever had before. It also benefits from the more heightened narrative reality of modern blockbusters, where the stakes are expected to remain consistently intense across a film’s runtime and build to a world-ending crescendo at the climax. The Meg is an attempt at hybridising the classic shark film with the modern blockbuster sensibility, as Skyscraper did with the hostage crisis and disaster genres.

With its core premise of a prehistoric monster wreaking terrible vengeance upon arrogant mankind, The Meg cannot help but evoke Jurassic Park, one of the films that ushered in the era of the modern blockbuster films. However, modern blockbusters seem to miss out on the words of wisdom offered by Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, who mused, Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should. It feels like The Meg never bothered to ask about whether it should commit to so much scale so quickly.

If they don’t get out of the way, they’ll be fin-eat-o.

In order to deliver on everything that it promised within the runtime, The Meg has to commit to an incredible accelerated sense of piece. A basic premise is barely established before it is time to move on. There is minimal time to wring suspense from an interesting set-up before it is time to move on to the next beat. It is possible to imagine entire two-hour films dedicated to the premise of each of the film’s big three acts, but instead the film rushes breathlessly from one set-up to the next.

There is a lot lost in this hustle. Most obviously, a sense of majesty and scale. Earlier in the summer, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom seemed to ruminate on the sense of awe and wonder that had faded from blockbuster cinema in this era of epic spectacle. Modern blockbusters cram so much action and so much excitement into the frame that there is no opportunity to take a step back and really appreciate the majesty of what these characters are experiencing first-hand.

Bite size.

Early in The Meg, it is revealed that the ocean floor is not actually the ocean floor. Instead, it is a cloud of hydrogen gas that protects an entire hidden world of mystery. An expedition penetrates the cloud and goes exploring. This should be a big deal of itself. After all, the discovery of that cloud fundamentally changes the human understanding of the entire planet. It should be like stepping through a portal on to an alien landscape. It should be terrifying and exciting, all at the same time. Instead, it is just a threshold that has to be crossed to get to the next beat.

The next beat, naturally, is the introduction of a giant shark. Again, this is a creature that was deemed extinct. This is the kind of monster that only lunatics imagined could still be loose in the wild. This should be introduced in a manner that evokes those early shots of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, inviting the audience to appreciate the majesty of this beast. Instead, there is one impressive shot of the shark gliding gracefully over a character’s head, and then it is business as usual.

Up to the gills.

The characters in The Meg react to the impossible with incredible ease. Once one of the submarines has crossed the threshold that mankind didn’t believe existed a few hours earlier, a couple more follow without breaking a sweat. Once the eponymous shark has made its presence known, an exposition dump is provided by a fairly professional-looking slide-show. Nobody seems too surprised that there is a hidden kingdom under the ocean floor or that it is inhabited by monster sharks.

To be fair, this serves an important plotting purpose. There is a certain sense in which the speed at which the characters adapt to their situation is welcome, avoiding familiar tropes about individual characters being accused of being insane. Indeed, the film handles the explanation of how the shark came to the surface world in about thirty seconds of exposition about “a super highway for giant sharks.” This efficiency is welcome in covering the plotting. It just means curtailing other important parts of narrative, like the sense of wonder or of character.

A bigger splash.

The script for The Meg often feels like a skeleton, waiting for a writer to add more flesh to the bones. Characters don’t converse in dialogue, but in bullet points lifted directly from the movie’s pitch document. “You left him down there,” Suyin Zhang accuses Jonas Taylor after an early (somewhat botched) rescue. “Because that’s who you are.” It is characterisation through exposition. In response, Jonas turns to his old friend, “This is why I don’t do this anymore, Mac.” It is all very crude and very archetypal.

The film doesn’t bother to show the audience who Justin Taylor is, instead settling for having various characters tell us repeatedly. There is no character arc here, just bluntly stated character description. Characters articulate the rough outline of a character arc, repeatedly telling the audience that Taylor is selfish and emotionally distant, but none of it impacts how the character actually behaves within the film itself.

Cracking under pressure.

This accelerated pacing also results in some tonal dissonance. The Meg is never entirely sure how seriously it wants to be taken. So much of the film is absurd, veering into campy; particularly a precocious young girl who plays an unlikely matchmaker. On the other hand, the film occasionally tries to sell genuine angst and stakes, going all sombre and serious as it recounts Taylor’s tragic backstory of his last encounter with the fabled beast. The film has to pivot between extremes too quickly, between Taylor’s angst and a more playful tonre.

Similarly, plot and character arcs are left rough and malformed, as if The Meg understands what is necessary in order to deliver a satisfying narrative, but simply doesn’t have the time or the space. One of the film’s more interesting characters is the industrialist Jack Morris, who has bankrolled the exploration programme to the tune of “one-point-three billion dollars.” Morris is a familiar archetype in films like this, the cynical arch-capitalist like Burke in Aliens or Morton in RoboCop.

I hate to Rainn on his parade.

Indeed, there is something very interesting in the concept of Morris in The Meg, as an update of that Reagan-era archetype. At this moment in time, it seems increasingly like modern society has outsourced public functions to private corporations. This includes space exploration and communications. Morris is essentially positioned as a version of Burke or Morton for the age of individuals like Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk, the billionaire who positions himself as a civic leader. There are a lot of interesting things that The Meg could do with the character.

The Meg seems to understand this. After an early encounter with the shark, the film begins a scene in which Morris does what arch-capitalists tend to do in stories like this; he suggests attempting to exploit something that he does not understand and cannot control for financial gain. The Meg sets up the classic monster movie or disaster film idea of capitalist excess and materialist hubris. However, The Meg doesn’t have any time to do anything more than just suggest it, so Morris’ scheming is interrupted by the arrival of the film’s second act premise through plot mechanics.

See food.

The Meg is constantly pushing itself forward, much like a shark. There is no time to pause or hesitate or process. Everything is building to the next thing. The Meg is a series of ridiculously over-the-top beats, but where each of those beats is rushed off stage because the next one is due to arrive at any moment. As a result, The Meg only really lives up to its potential at the climax of the story, when there is finally nowhere left for the film to go and it is forced to deliver pay-off instead of escalation.

These beats are genuinely impressive. These images seem to beg for gif treatment, distilling the film down to some pretty catchy imagery. Unfortunately, these beats arrive too late and too infrequently. More than that, they work so well that they retroactively highlight the relative absence of these ridiculously heightened pay-offs at early points in the narrative. The Meg feels like an evolutionary dead end, swimming so far and so fast to relatively meager pay-off.

Deep dive.

The Meg tries to bite off too much.

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