WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SOME SPOILERS!
It’s here Vault Dwellers: The movie that inspired the theme of this year’s Summer of the Shark marathon! A film that is very loosely based upon Steve Alten’s first novel! A film that languished in development hell for over twenty years, passing from Disney, to New Line, and eventually Warner Bros. with various directors attached at one time or another, including Guillermo del Toro, Jan De Bont, and Eli Roth. Brace yourselves Vault Dwellers, for THE MEG has finally surfaced!
I was pumped when a feature film adaptation of Meg was announced on the web…. back in 2004. At that time Nick Nunziata (creator and former head writer of the now defunct Chud.com) was spearheading the production, with Guillermo del Toro attached as director. But for numerous reasons (particularly the film’s “epic scope”) THE MEG never exited pre-production. In fact, it continued to remain in movie purgatory until 2016, when Warner Bros. announced that the time had come! After replacing Eli Roth with Jon Turtletaub due to “creative differences,” production finally began on the film, which was released this past weekend. Was it worth the wait? Well…. kinda…
THE MEG begins with a rescue mission on the bottom of the ocean, somewhere near the Challenger Deep. Rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) and his team are pulling survivors from a crippled nuclear submarine, when something suddenly collides with the vessel. This attack, coupled with the incredible pressure at those depths, causes the sub to lose hull integrity. This forces Jonas to make the gut-wrenching decision to leave two men behind before the sub implodes.
Despite his assurances that something had attacked the sub, and that he had acted to save as many people as possible, no one (in particular, Robert Taylor’s Dr. Heller) believes Jonas, forcing him to retire in disgrace. Five years later, Jonas now finds himself grudgingly accepting a new deep sea rescue mission when his pal James “Mac” Mackreides (Cliff Curtis) and scientist Minway Zhang (Winston Chao) track him down in Thailand. After initially refusing their plea for help, Jonas changes his mind once they reveal more about the situation.
You see, both Mac and Zhang are part of a scientific team that is exploring the depths of the Mariana Trench. Zhang theorized that there is an insulating layer of gas at the very bottom, and sends a small expedition to see what’s beneath it. It turns out that Zhang’s hypothesis was correct: There is a hidden world of scientific wonders beneath the gaseous canopy! But Zhang failed to figure any dangerous fauna into his calculations, and now Jonas’ ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) and her investigative team are trapped at the bottom of the Trench with a limited supply of oxygen. And as icing on the cake, her final message before losing contact was “Jonas was right!”
Likely tempted by the prospect of telling his ex “I told you so,” Jonas heads to the Mana One undersea research facility to make preparations. However, he’s not exactly given a warm welcome as Dr. Heller is working there, and is firmly against Jonas’ involvement. This causes some trepidation among the facility’s other staff members, particularly Dr. Zhang’s daughter Suyin (Bingbing Li). So much so that she goes on ahead of Jonas to save the day, and soon finds herself within the grasp of a Colossal Squid! But before the enormous Cephalopod can crush Suyin’s sub, the much-touted Megalodon makes its first appearance and eats the tentacled terror!
Jonas arrives on the scene moments later and manages to save his ex and “The Wall” (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), while their pal Toshi (Masi Oka) sacrifices himself so that the others can escape from the Meg. Turning the lights on in the damaged mini-sub, Toshi attracts the voracious mega shark, who slams into the craft and causes an underwater explosion that breaches a thermal vent in the ocean floor. This gives Jonas the chance to escape, but also briefly creates a “bridge” of warm water through the Thermocline above, allowing the Meg to leave its centuries-old prison on the bottom of the sea.
With a prehistoric shark on the loose, Jonas and the members of Mana One’s scientific team must figure out a way to kill the aggressive fish before it reaches a highly populated area. As the film races to its finish, our heroes engage in aquatic combat with the mighty Megalodon in order to keep it from snacking on an international human buffet off the coast of China. This culminates into one (not so) startling revelation, and a final duel between Jonas and the Meg, which results in one of the most oddball climaxes in shark cinema history!
After twenty years of false starts, one year of prep, and well over another year of shooting, editing, and promotion, all I could think after THE MEG ended was “this is the best film that Warner Bros. could deliver?” Don’t get me wrong Vault Dwellers because THE MEG is a fun popcorn flick and likely the best Megalodon film ever made (which isn’t saying much I suppose), but it is also a far cry from what it could (and should) have been. It’s such an annoyingly middle-of-the-road movie that plays things way too safe, which almost makes me wish that it was still in development hell!
After seeing the directors that were originally attached to this film, I was a bit nonplussed when Jon Turtletaub was selected. This is the guy who gave us 3 NINJAS, COOL RUNNINGS, NATIONAL TREASURE, and THINK BIG (a guilty pleasure of mine), and he’s supposed to deliver a violent killer shark flick? Apparently yes! However, the noticeable lack of blood in the water was decided upon by someone higher up the food chain, much to the chagrin of both Jon Turtletaub and star Jason Statham who have both stated in interviews that the version they shot contained a great deal of gore.
But THE MEG isn’t a total loss because it has some decent visual effects and a cast that helps raise the bar. The vast majority of the effects are done with CGI and look pretty darn good in my opinion. While I would have liked some animatronic shark action in this film, it most likely would not have been cost effective to try and build a seventy-foot shark to interact with the actors. But damn, can you imagine how cool it would have been to see that beast on set or location? It’d be nearly three times bigger than our beloved pal “Bruce” from JAWS!
The cast of THE MEG is led by action star Jason Statham who turns in a solid performance as Jonas Taylor, a grumpy yet selfless hero that is up to the task of battling the rampaging Meg. Statham ably carries the movie on his shoulders, but does get some backup from several co-stars, including Bingbing Li as his main love interest, and Shuya Sophia Cai who portrays Suyin’s daughter, Meiying. Li’s Suyin is a strong female character who seems a bit too eager to face certain death (YOU HAVE A DAUGHTER! STOP TRYING TO FIGHT GIANT SHARKS!), and little Shuya Cai steals just about every scene she’s in.
I also enjoyed Rainn Wilson as Morris, the billionaire who funded the creation of the Mana One and its fleet of submersibles. Though he proved to be one of my favorite supporting characters, Morris turns out to be nothing more than excess baggage with some very questionable motives. Morris funds a gigantic research station, a large staff of scientists and experts, and exploratory submersibles because…. he likes spending money? Well obviously not, as evidenced by a rant about how he’s paying people to just sit around, but it is never clear what his goal is which kind of makes his presence here pointless.
The more I think about it, it seems to me that his character was carried over from a previous version of the script where he was most likely more of an opportunist than a philanthropist. Had there been a scene where Morris was griping about not being able to exploit resources (be it fossil fuels or precious minerals) because of the presence of Megalodons in the darkest depths of the Pacific, then that would’ve made some sense. Instead he’s just along for the ride until he meets his end in one of the film’s more memorable scenes.
As far as book-to-film adaptations go, THE MEG is probably one of the least successful that I’ve come across. The movie keeps the names of characters from the novel and the fact that Megalodons exist in the Mariana Trench, but that’s pretty much it. The remainder of the script is a generic and formulaic man vs. monster tale that we’ve all seen dozens of times. In fact, when you get right down to it, THE MEG has more in common with 2002’s oft-forgotten MEGALODON, than it does with its own source material.
While I could go on a long tangent about the disparities between the two, here are just a few of the big differences between Alten’s novel and the feature film. THERE ARE MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD, SO READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!
- The reason anyone bothers delving into the Mariana Trench in the novel is to deploy an experimental “early warning” system for predicting earthquakes, not just for the sake of exploration.
- In the book, the Meg’s exit from deep is completely different. A male Megalodon is ensnared in steel cables and dragged through the icy cold waters that keeps the prehistoric monsters trapped near the ocean floor. A larger female begins feeding on the dying shark and is kept warm by the protective cloud of blood pouring out of its former mate, allowing her to rise to the surface.
- Alten’s version of Jonas becomes an (often disrespected) expert in paleontology and marine biology after a disastrous encounter with a Megalodon. Desperate to prove that he wasn’t insane, or responsible for the deaths of his comrades, Jonas agrees to return to the Trench at the behest of a Japanese (not Chinese) associate. On that note, many of the characters in the book are completely different from the versions in the film. For example, Mac is a former Navy helicopter pilot and close friend of Jonas, Dr. Heller is an unrepentant jerk that never has a change of heart, and Jonas’ ex-wife is a manipulative and cold-hearted journalist that will do anything to further her career.
- The shark in the novel is bioluminescent (an evolutionary response to living in the dark abyss of the Trench) and a nocturnal threat that avoids bright light. This helps them track the Meg, and also keep it at bay until the creature is rendered blind towards the end of the novel. This results in an enraged Megalodon that attacks anything it senses via its lateral line and ampullae of Lorenzini.
- There is only one Meg on the loose in the novel and she is preggers! Once the Meg is defeated (after Jonas literally cuts its heart out from the inside using a fossilized Megalodon tooth), the newborn wriggles its way out and is captured. Dubbed “Angel,” the baby Meg is locked in a lagoon and grows into a much larger (and deadlier) threat in the followup novel The Trench. In the film, Jonas slashes the Meg’s abdomen with the damaged wing of his submersible, then delivers the coup de gras by driving a metal rod into the creature’s eye. As the dead Meg slowly sinks into the abyss, a huge swarm of sharks (including Great Whites and Hammerheads) suddenly appears, and begins feeding on its corpse!
THE MEG is a big dumb Blockbuster that does just enough right to warrant its existence. And while it lacks the bite of its progenitor, it is admittedly entertaining and fun with a crowd. This neutered adaptation of Steve Alten’s novel mostly works Vault Dwellers, and manages to rise above its weak script, distinct lack of onscreen carnage, and forgettable soundtrack (courtesy of Harry Gregson-Williams) thanks to some cool sequences and a strong cast. Perhaps in the future we’ll get a director’s cut of the film that contains the excised gore, but until that day comes, I dare not give THE MEG anything higher than: