There’s a force to the stillness of Jason Statham’s screen persona. As his Jonas Taylor says to another character in director Jon Turteltaub’s The Meg, “I could just kick your ass right here,” and though a punch isn’t thrown, Statham’s intimidating delivery—at once growly and smooth—and poise has a piledriving impact. Turteltaub uses Statham’s almost preternatural talents to ground the ridiculous premise of The Meg, a thriller where deep-sea divers and vacation beaches are imperiled by a prehistoric mega-shark.
The Meg’s main action is set off the coast of China, and it involves an international research team bent on exploring the oceanic depths beneath a freezing layer of water. But after their submersible vessel is attacked by something large and mysterious, retired rescue diver Jonas Taylor is called in to help. It turns out that Taylor was forced into retirement years before, following a botched submarine rescue mission that responded to a crisis eerily like the one at the center of this film. Taylor, who’s since been subsisting on a diet of cheap beer (his forearm veins are nevertheless still popping—because Statham), reluctantly agrees to take on this new mission, in part because one of the trapped scientists is his ex-wife (Jessica McNamee). Soon, the expedition discovers what they’re dealing with is a megalodon, a shark that can reach over 20 meters in length, believed to be long extinct.
The Meg’s plot isn’t restricted to one imperiled space, unexpectedly and agilely moving across the ocean, from the vessel to the interrupted calm of the research team’s underwater home base, and then from a large fishing boat before concluding on a beach crowded with vacationing swimmers. Throughout, Turteltaub diverts the focus from the beast below to the confines of man-made spaces, the hard metal surfaces of which cause more damage to those trapped within than the shark’s teeth. This, compounded with nods to the unethical practices of shark and whale hunting, gives The Meg some topical frosting, as the apparatuses set up by humans become the real monsters. When Dr. Suyin Zhang (Li Bingbing) dives into a state-of-the-art shark cage in order to confront the megalodon, she soon discovers that it’s the ingenuity of the protective cage that’s her true obstacle.
Hanging over all shark movies is Jaws, where Steven Spielberg’s warm rendering of human beings offsets the horror spectacle. The great white shark is tattooed in our memory, but so are the travails of Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody and his family, and more than that, the Robert Shaw character’s monologue of the A-bomb-delivering USS Indianapolis, where the stakes of man versus nature and man versus man are set side by side.
Jaws works as both a horror film and a human drama. The Meg doesn’t aspire to the earlier film’s pathos (its flagrant callbacks to Jaws draw attention to how grotesquely adolescent it is by comparison), but that’s because it’s above all else a movie-star vehicle, and it succeeds on that front. A closer point of comparison may be Howard Hawks’s African-set adventure Hatari!, and as with John Wayne among the safari animals, Statham is king here, not the shark. The Meg resonates in the end for the way the computer-generated beast (and similarly manufactured scenario and stock players) makes way for the Statham-acious spotlight, summer moviedom’s trashy and bloated technological production assembly ultimately deferential to the flesh-and-blood actor’s incandescence in real space and time.