For moviegoers, August is no longer the total disreputable dumping ground it once was. Yet if you want to know whether that phenomenon known as the “August movie” is alive and kicking, look no further than “The Meg.” It’s a big, crass, brainlessly expensive B-movie leftover all dressed up to look like the real deal in blockbuster goods. In other words, it’s a film that has all the August qualities. It takes a cast of flatly “likable” second-tier actors and hitches them to the lure of a special-effects creature that, in theory, will prove to be a crowd-pleasing attraction. More than that, the whole thing feels like a copy of a copy. “The Meg” is “Jaws” on dumbed-down steroids, and proud of it. It’s the sort of movie that people used to go to when they went to movies for the air conditioning.
Now they’ll go because it’s an endlessly recycled, low-ball entertainment universe to begin with, so who cares if you’re watching trash? Your mind probably melted down long ago. “The Meg,” a rote sci-fi horror adventure film that features a shark the size of a blue whale, comes on like it wants to be the mother of all deep-sea attack movies. But it’s really just the mother of all generically pandering, totally unsurprising “Jaws” ripoffs.
Is it “fun”? That depends on your definition of fun. “The Meg,” I suppose, is a competent and passable time-killer, and right in the middle of it all is Jason Statham, who in recent years, starting around the time he approached the big 5-0 (he’s now 51), has been looking a bit like Jaws himself: less fleshy than before, all cold eyes and pearly-white snarl. For anyone who’s a fan (like me), a Jason Statham movie always has some bite.
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Yet if there’s a disappointment to “The Meg,” it’s not just that the movie isn’t good enough. It’s that it’s not bad enough. For months, a ubiquitous trailer, cut to Bobby Darin’s 1959 version of “Beyond the Sea,” suggested that “The Meg” might be a big-fish-eating-its-own-tail thriller driven by a clever/stupido awareness of its own ticky-tacky August qualities. No such luck. “The Meg” isn’t an ironic horror comedy that winks at you, like “Piranha 3D” or “Little Shop of Horrors” or “Shaun of the Dead.” It’s just pulp staged on an industrial scale. That said, it’s still intent on tweaking your nostalgic tastebuds for ’70s cheese.
“Jaws,” which came out in the summer of 1975, is a movie that we now think of as the beginning of something. It was the birth of the blockbuster mentality, the movie that originally notched the Spielberg/Lucas axis onto the map, and, of course, the first nail in the coffin of the New Hollywood. (I’d argue that the real first nail was “The Exorcist,” but that’s another story.) Yet before Spielberg turned it into a work of thriller art that left Hitchcock in awe, “Jaws” had a pedigree. In spirit and tradition, it was a grisly exploitation movie, a glorified piece of body-chomping Roger Corman trash. And that, in the age of “Sharknado,” is just what “The Meg” should have been: a gonzo thrill ride — a movie bloody and scary enough to make you squirm with delight.
But “The Meg” lacks the imagination to be shameless. Directed by the veteran plodder Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure,” “Phenomenon”), it goes right back to the template of vastly scaled but chintzy ’70s disaster movies: a busy ensemble of instantly scannable and forgettable characters, working (in this case) at an underwater research facility known as Mana One, enmeshed in cardboard dramas we could scarcely care less about. Rainn Wilson is the billionaire weasel who has financed the elaborate underwater sea lab, with its giant glass walls, and Statham is the rescue diver haunted by the day, five years before, when he left a submarine full of sailors to die — but only because if he hadn’t, he and the people aboard his own rescue ship would have gone down with them. Jessica McNamee plays Statham’s ex-wife, who happens to be one of the crew, and Li Bingbing is the single mother who strikes up a romantic flirtation with him.
The killer creature that Statham led his crew away from was the Megalodon, a ginormous prehistoric shark thought to be extinct. As it turns out, the creature still exists, hidden in the briny depths under some sort of false ocean bottom. Seeing Statham first utter the word “megalodon” with the perfect popping gaze of sinister scrutiny is half the reason to buy a ticket. The other half is the creature itself — a gliding, thrashing monster with slimy skin and teeth the size of refrigerators. It’s fun to see it creep up to the sea-station windows, or rear up 150 feet out of the water and crash down onto a schooner, cracking the boat in two.
But in “The Meg,” the actual chomping of human beings is too tasteful and restrained. The movie is a glum-witted procedural — a how-to-kill-the-beast thriller. Our heroes try to attack the meg with grenades, and when Statham swims out to shoot a tracking dart into its fin, there’s some good split-second suspense hinged to whether he’ll make it back in time. But the grandiose horror that a contemporary Corman-style thriller needs has been neutered and PG-13-ified.
One reason that “Jaws” got away with not showing you the shark until an hour and 20 minutes in is that it wasn’t really a movie about what the shark looked like; it was a movie about what it would feel like to have your limbs bitten off. Spielberg established that tactile terror in the classic opening sequence and played off it throughout the film. But “The Meg,” literal-minded and mechanical, really is a movie about what a giant shark looks like. And that turns out to be: less threatening each time you see it.