There’s a perverse irony in how The Meg (2018) spends incredible sums of money to recreate B movie dreck while capturing none of its charm. The story of a team battling a prehistoric gigantic shark, it doesn’t even pastiche the quasi-respectable horror-adventure of the original Jaws (1975) but the desperation and diminishing returns of its many sequels.
There’s another irony – or maybe arrogance – in the way modern Hollywood contorts itself to appeal to Chinese audiences, chasing after its money and stars to skirt around the country’s protectionism around cinema releases, while being careful to not concede Western superiority within the resulting films. The wise-cracking billionaire bankrolling the undersea research facility (Rainn Wilson) is thoroughly American, ostensibly punished for his hubris but far too affable to count as a villain.
But The Meg is, unintentionally, more defined by generational clashes than anything else, a side effect of the two decades it took for the novel to come to the screen.
Jonas (Jason Statham), a rescue diver, is a throwback macho action hero and somewhat adrift in the modern era. He’s muscled but also, outside of a shirtless scene that plays entirely for comedy, entirely sexless. He’s introduced as a divorced, traumatised alcoholic who abandoned his profession after a near-death experience, and yet his defining trait is ‘non-threatening’. He quickly befriends oceanographer Suyin’s (Li Bingbing) daughter and forms a makeshift family unit.
Damsel in distress duties are shared between two characters, Suyin and ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee). Jaxx, played by the genderfluid Ruby Rose, is given even less to do, despite having the potential to resolve some of these imbalances.
The humour in the film, with a quip around every corner (“Do you guys ever watch Shark Week?”), comes across as a Baby Boomer director doing his best impression of Generation X detached irony. It’s the difference between the semi-winking provocations of Eli Roth, who was once attached to direct before ‘creative differences’ saw his departure, and John Turteltaub, who brings his experience in the well-oiled Disney machine to the material.
There are the obligatory attempts at drama, although every moment of sincerity is treated like an embarrassment, to be passed over as quickly as possible. While other recent shark thrillers have channelled millennial earnestness – the survival and self-reliance of The Shallows (2016), the grim fatalism of 47 Meters Down (2017) – here the indecision over these competing tones is fatal.
Another fatal flaw is the lack of spectacle. There’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the potential and limits of CGI. In a computer, a digital asset can be enlarged or replicated at little further cost except hard drive storage space. This poses a major problem for creating awe and scale, at least when it’s used to simply recreate rather than pushing towards new, unimagined images.
Bad CGI is partly a failure of imagination. The meg is impossibly large, but this is understood more as a concept than a reality. The source novel opens with a prehistoric meg attacking a T Rex, an update of the Godzilla (1998) teaser trailer where a Godzilla foot tramples a T Rex skeleton, announcing it as the ultimate apex predator and bigger and better than Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997). This scene doesn’t appear in the film. The camera is weightless, often divorced from any human perspective, but without embracing the possibilities of a virtual camera.
And when actors are routinely rejuvenated or resurrected through CGI, death itself is no longer real. When the Meg is defeated, another identical shark jumps out of the ocean to take its place.
(Alien: Covenant is one of the few would-be blockbusters to thematise this problem: the android David, himself a digital replicant, is a frustrated creator, grasping at references to Byron, Milton, and so on as he creates endless variations of the same monster. The film itself is a digital iteration of the original Alien franchise, also finding visual inspiration from the video games previous films influenced.)
Devoid of joy, invention or personality, The Meg attempts to please everyone and ends up pleasing no-one.