Jon Turteltaub was responsible for many popular films throughout the nineties and early-two-thousands, from Phenomenon and The Kid to the National Treasure series. Turteltaub’s films haven’t always been critical darlings, but he has a way of producing crowd-pleasers that make a lasting impression and carry goodwill forward, years beyond their release dates. His profile has lowered in recent years, but now he returns with this thriller about the return of the prehistoric (and presumed extinct, but who can say, for sure, right?) shark, the megalodon.
People love sharks, don’t they? The world’s obsession with them started with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, but has persisted to the point that the Discovery Channel has its yearly Shark Week, Katy Perry uses them during her Super Bowl performances, and my youngest niece wants to be one for Halloween. (Or maybe Jesus, she says. We’ll see which way the wind blows.) Shark movies have persisted, as well, from the numerous Jaws sequels to 1999’s Deep Blue Sea up through more recent efforts such as last year’s 47 Meters Down and the greatest shark movie of all-time (hate to burst your bubble, Jaws lovers), 2016’s The Shallows.
But people are going to keep making shark movies because people love sharks! And it was only a matter of time before someone got the idea to use a megalodon as the subject of one. But that idea actually came along much sooner than many realize, as this film is based on Steve Alten’s book Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror. The book was initially supposed to be adapted into a film after its publication in 1997, but it hasn’t materialized until now. It certainly seems like the right time, as well; my showing was more crowded than usual for a Thursday night and it appears as though this weekend’s other new releases might be chum in the water. I hope not, but time will tell.
I feel as if there’s no need to summarize the film’s premise any more than I have, already. You know what you need to know. The marketing has done an excellent job of getting the word out and raising audience awareness of the film. I’ve got to say that it also did an excellent job of keeping the biggest and best parts of the movie hidden from view. I was a little worried, at first. The initial thirty minutes, or so, are rather unremarkable – even when the megalodon is active. The early attempts at thrills are trite and benign at best and I was having flashbacks to 1998’s disappointingly underwhelming Godzilla film.
But once the film proceeds to the second act, the pace and excitement accelerate and the movie becomes exactly what one would both hope and expect. The justification for producing a film about a megalodon after there have already been so many shark films throughout the years is sound; a megalodon is so much bigger than even the largest great white shark that the potential differences for the purpose of filmmaking are surprisingly vast. There are plenty of fun ideas put into play in this film that simply couldn’t be utilized in a film about a smaller shark. The action set pieces are unique, clever, fun, and often outright exhilarating, alone making the movie worthwhile for fans of the shark genre. But, similar to Mission: Impossible – Fallout, it also feels like a throwback to more traditional action films of the past that are more grounded in the real world and less dependent upon science-fiction (but fear not – the action in this film is very much over-the-top in the best way possible).
I also want to give credit where it’s due regarding the cast and the characters they play. The script treats each character as an important life; there are no expendable red shirts, no collateral damage, here. And Turteltaub gives each character enough development that they’re complex, whole, and endearing, making it difficult for the audience to pull for the shark. The cast do their part, as well, by supplying charismatic performances and completing the package. Nobody here is winning an Oscar for their efforts (though the movie, itself, could now be a front-runner!), but Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis (my personal favorite of the bunch), Ruby Rose, Page Kennedy, Masi Oka, and Sophia Cai are all granted opportunities to connect with and make an impression on the audience, and each of them make the most of it.
The Meg isn’t high art, but it’s not pretending to be and that’s why it works. The film has a self-deprecating sense of humor, knows what it is, knows why people are coming to see it, and doesn’t attempt to reach beyond its grasp. Turteltaub gives enough extra substance to encourage the audience to engage and empathize with the protagonists, rather than the megalodon, and the cast seals the deal. Beyond that, the film is what it professes to be: a high-energy (once it gets rolling) blast of shark mayhem that bucks much of the traditional formula and takes the viewer on a harmless ride away from their troubles for a couple of hours. Go ahead and see it; you know you were going to, anyway.
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