Sharks are our friends

‘The Meg’ is the latest sharksploitation flick

‘THE MEG’ is best when it’s being silly rather than dramatic (August 20, 2018).  (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘THE MEG’ is best when it’s being silly rather than dramatic (August 20, 2018).
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the movies, there’s a new shark flick, The Meg.
The Meg joins a long list of movies – most of them released late in the summer – that feature these underwater predators front and center, with humans there primarily as snacks for the main attraction.
The Meg, which is really pretty terrible (although occasionally – and intentionally – so bad it’s funny), is for hardcore shark-movie fans only. Its hook is that the titular creature is a megalodon, aka a prehistoric shark – “A living fossil... thought to be extinct for over two million years,” as The Meg puts it – but it’s far from the first time this animal has been portrayed on screen. There have been meg sightings in Shark Attack 3: Megalodon, some of the Mega Shark movies, Roger Corman’s Dinoshark and, of course, a cameo in Jurassic World, produced by Steven Spielberg, in which a megalodon chows down on a great white like it’s a jelly bean. This Jurassic megalodon appearance is obviously a nod to the greatest shark movie of all, Spielberg’s own 1975 Jaws, in which a great white menaced the beachfront of a small town.
But The Meg stands out in a couple of ways. One of these is the length of time the film spent in development: it’s been more than 20 years since struggling father-of-five Steve Alten sold his first novel, Meg, for a two-book, seven-figure publishing deal, along with the movie rights. Why it’s taken so long to bring this book to the screen is anyone’s guess, but it has given Alten time to create a whole line of meg books, which includes one with the intriguing title, Meg: Hell’s Aquarium.
The other new wrinkle is that while most shark films are set somewhere off the coast of the US, The Meg takes place in Asia, with Chinese and Taiwanese stars such as Bingbing Li and Winston Chao in significant roles, and quite a few lines in Mandarin. The long-teased scene where the meg menaces a crowded beach is set off the Chinese coast (although it was actually filmed in New Zealand), where the water is so crowded with swimmers that it resembles a subway train at rush hour. And just as the new comedy Crazy Rich Asians is coming out (it will be in Israeli theaters starting August 23), The Meg features a Chinese wedding aboard a yacht, where the bride’s main concern is the fate of her lapdog, even as the titular giant prehistoric beast gorges itself on nearby swimmers and their colorful flotation devices.
The Meg has what is by now the standard action/disaster movie mix of multi-ethnic actors and stereotypical characters: a bald white guy with something to prove (Jason Statham); a brave woman who looks good in a wetsuit (Bingbing Li); a scientist who thinks things may have gotten out of hand (Winston Chao); a wisecracking tough gal (Ruby Rose, who was in Orange is the New Black); a brainy African American (Page Kennedy, who was in Weeds); an arrogant billionaire (Rainn Wilson from The Office); and some other assorted shark bait, including Cliff Curtis (from Fear the Walking Dead), Masi Oka (Heroes) and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who is a big star in Iceland.
The movie is best when it’s being silly rather than dramatic, and Wilson gets the funniest line, when he suggests they put a tracking device on the meg, asking, “Don’t you guys ever watch Shark Week?” While computers now feature special effects that Spielberg could only dream of back in the 1970s, The Meg’s technical quality is unexpectedly cheesy, with many murky underwater shots and lots of scenes that supposedly show the gigantic meg but are obviously just ordinary sharks photographed from close up.
The Meg’s awkwardly staged action sequences and cliches just highlight the brilliance of Jaws, where the shark is not shown (except for a fin) until about 80 minutes into the movie. That unseen shark created more suspense than the obviously plastic 70-foot meg, or any other movie shark since. The interplay among the acclaimed Jaws actors – Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss – was often nearly as riveting as their pursuit of the great white. Robert Shaw’s monologue about surviving the World War II sinking of the USS Indianapolis, where hundreds of soldiers were killed by sharks, was extremely moving. (The true story of the Indianapolis was finally brought to the screen in an unfortunately lackluster 2016 film with Nicolas Cage.)
But perhaps it’s unfair to compare a piece of schlock like The Meg to a classic. Even the Jaws sequels did not come close to the original – although Jaws 2 has a few scary moments – but Jaws 3-D and especially Jaws: The Revenge descended into ridiculous plotting and general silliness.
The idea that shark movies can be so over-the-top they’re funny spawned a whole new sub-genre of campy sharksploitation flicks that The Meg tries to capitalize on. The apotheosis of these are the Sharknado TV movies, where thousands of sharks drop out of the sky onto panicking D-list actors such as Tara Reid. There are now seven in this silly series. There are dozens of other silly shark movies, with titles like Shark in Venice and Jersey Shore Shark Attack.
Sharks began to star in animated films, too, in such hits as A Shark’s Tale, Finding Nemo and Finding Dory.
Another shark-movie trend that continues in The Meg is the strong female vs. predator, which started as far back as the 1999 Deep Blue Sea (genetically engineered sharks on a marine facility nibble on Samuel L. Jackson but are reigned in by a fearless Saffron Burrows). In 2016’s tense The Shallows, Blake Lively, who just wanted to surf in a very flattering bikini-wetsuit combo, faced down a huge shark that got between her and a Mexican beach. Last year, Mandy Moore (This is Us) and Claire Holt (The Vampire Diaries) played sisters who got stuck in a shark cage with little oxygen at the bottom of the sea.
Out of all of these, the one shark movie worth watching other than Jaws is Chris Kentis’ Open Water (2003), a scarily plausible and utterly terrifying movie based on the true story of two scuba divers accidentally stranded in shark-infested waters after a disorganized tour boat leaves them behind.
While The Meg will quickly be forgotten, one thing is certain – about this time next year, you’ll see a movie poster with a fin on it again.