Thursday, September 6, 2018

Film Review: THE MEG by Mike Sullivan

There’s a right way and a wrong way to make a Jason Statham movie. The right way is to ensure that his character is a beautiful man that kills beautifully. Statham’s characters should and always be Richard Kuklinski if he had the world’s most perfect, most glittering v-line abs. Nothing more, nothing less. You should also ensure that the movie is just that man-on-man wrestling scene from WOMEN IN LOVE expanded to 90 minutes after the homoeroticism was ratcheted up about twenty percent (two motor oil rubdown montages will bookend the feature). It should then be capped off by a scene in which Statham climbs inside a wheelbarrow, pushes himself off of the top of a skyscraper that’s under construction, removes his pants and uses it to strangle the neck of any surviving worker dumb enough to lean forward to watch as he falls to his seeming death. The wrong way would be to place him in an environment -- say, the bottom of the ocean -- where he can’t tough talk other Cronenbergian flesh-pillars in tank-tops and punch them in the throat once their anger-engorged rage-boners brush against his. The wrong way would be to make him play a character that might feel remorse if he shot someone in the forehead with a crossbow on a whim or put his character in a situation where there isn’t much to do beyond getting dragged by a towline in the ocean or getting violently jostled every so often. The wrong way would be to make him face off against one giant shark instead of several regular sized sharks he can fight throughout the movie. Basically, the wrong way to make a Jason Statham movie is to produce something along the lines of THE MEG.

The glib way to describe THE MEG is to say that it’s an expensive SYFY original movie but it’s not an accurate comparison. As obnoxious as SHARKNADO and its ilk can be, they understand why their audience is there and waste no time giving them what they want. THE MEG, on the other hand, wastes everybody’s time because it’s not really sure as to who its audience is or why it’s watching. Case in point, the first 50 minutes of THE MEG’s nearly two-hour running time revolves around the crew aboard a futuristic undersea research facility that looks like a ride queue at Epcot. But that particular aesthetic is fitting because the film itself looks like one of those pre-show videos you watch in said ride queues before an attendant shoves a pair of 3-D glasses into your hands and shuffles you into a violently twitching epilepsy simulator. At any rate, the purpose of this research facility is to finally reveal, once and for all, just how deep the Mariana Trench really is. A truly groundbreaking and important discovery. Especially if you’re the editor of Ranger Rick and the well for fun facts ran dry five issues ago.

A three person crew (Jessica McNamee, Masi Oka and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson)  from the facility is sent down to investigate the trench and quickly finds their submersible incapacitated by the titular megalodon. In any other shark attack movie, this would be the point where the momentum picks up and the fun would begin. In THE MEG’s case, the film takes an extended intermission as we’re introduced to this crew, their bizarre relationships -- in spite of the fact that Oka’s character is just a year younger than Ólafsson, Ólafsson treats him as if he’s his nine-year-old son. Maybe it’s just me, but as a man in my 40s, I wouldn’t have a secret octopus themed handshake I would share with my other 40-something year old friends. Even if I did, I wouldn’t force them to go through the motions of this cutesy bullshit while they were lying on their death bed much like Ólafsson does to Oka here -- and the reluctant rescue diver (Statham) who will eventually save them. Everything introduced in these moments, from revelations about Statham’s spotty past as a rescue diver, to the presence of Statham’s ex-wife aboard the submersible, to the doctor (Robert Taylor) who thinks Statham is just an unbalanced liar, has no bearing on the rest of the film. All of this aggravating, time-consuming minutia exists just to get Statham to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, because once he does, he bursts the bubble/unlocks the force field of some kind of oceanic-doggy-door-thing that allows the Meg to escape the trench and follow him into the ocean above? I guess? I don’t understand the science behind it. More importantly, I don’t understand why the film couldn’t have just started with the prologue where the Meg botches Statham’s last rescue mission, dropped the majority of the research facility plotline and picked the story up several years after the prologue with Statham (who, it should be noted, is dressed during this sequence like something in between a scarecrow and Brando at the height of his muu-muu years) being called out of his retirement in Thailand because, yes, there is a megalodon and only he can stop it. Sure, that version of THE MEG is just RAMBO III with more sharks and less of the brave freedom fighters of the Mujahideen, but then it’s not like the current version of the movie is some Alain Robbe-Grillet-esque experiment in genre defiance. The only thing these scenes add to THE MEG is a longer, more punishing running time.

But, ok. Once the giant shark is introduced the fun can finally begin, right? Statham’s shirt will finally come off, he’ll crawl into the giant shark’s roaring mouth and kick his way out of its eye socket right before it swims head first into a large patch of that electrified seaweed from the first Ninja Turtles game? Something like that has to happen, right? Oh, fuck no. In fact, the shark doesn’t even growl (but it does hide under a whale to avoid getting hit by a missile, so there’s that). There is one scene that lives up to the lofty expectations of Statham’s fans. In it, the guns on Statham’s personal sub fail, so he’s forced to use the sub as a giant knife to repeatedly hack and slash the Meg to death. It’s an amazing moment, but you have to sit through most of the film to see it. The other shark attacks aren’t nearly as crazy and are mired in weak PG-13-level bloodlessness.  But what the film lacks in breathless, entertaining gore, it more than makes up with genuine, four-on-the-floor, hardcore chuckles! Do you know there’s a Roomba WITH A SHARK FIN in this movie? Do you like when characters in movies remember that FINDING DORY is a movie that exists outside of their movie? Statham plays one of those characters! How about Rainn Wilson? Did you like when he played Dwight on THE OFFICE? Well, good news, he plays a dull-witted billionaire who is nothing at all like that character but he does overestimate his ability to speak Chinese and looks for wifi in unusual places. And for those who might find all of those gags a bit too challenging, there’s also a sassy black guy who can’t swim and plenty of misplaced sentiment following any scene where fat Swedes stumble off a boat and goofily land in the mouth of a giant shark. THE MEG wants to be DEEP BLUE SEA, but it’s mired in director Jon Turtletaub’s signature touches like clumsy character development and tons of laff-track ready zingers. It’s like one of his bad Disney movies was unconvincingly dolled up in grindhouse drag.

Reportedly, Eli Roth was originally set to direct the Meg but left due to creative differences with the Warner Bros. In spite of the fact that Roth has devolved into a lazy provocateur who adapts locked Reddit threads into movies, Roth would have had a better grasp on the material and, at the very least, made THE MEG memorable. Unfortunately, we got Turtletaub, a blandly competent studio hack whose entire filmography can be found collecting dust in the DVD section of a truck stop. But then, what was I expecting? THE MEG was based on a series of novels that could be charitably described as airport fiction. The fact that it wasn’t adapted into an USA Original Movie 20 some years ago is the only remarkable element about THE MEG. Yet, this generic summer product has been number two at the box office for nearly a month. If anything, that proves how dire our entertainment options were this summer.

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