Friday, August 10, 2018

The Meg: Waterlogged

The Meg (2018) • View trailer 
1.5 stars. Rated PG-13, for dramatic intensity, profanity, bloody violence and fleeting gore

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.10.18

Those with a fondness for 1960s TV shows will recall that director/producer Irwin Allen was responsible for several of the most laughably atrocious sci-fi shows ever unleashed on the small screen: Lost in SpaceLand of the Giants and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.

Having successfully "tagged" the megalodon with a homing device, and now able to track
it, our plucky monster hunters — from left, Mac (Cliff Curtis), Jonas (Jason Statham),
Jaxx (Ruby Rose), Suyin (Bingbing Li), Lori (Jessica McNamee), DJ (Page Kennedy)
and little Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai) — wonder what to do next.
This movie plays like a standard-issue Voyage episode with delusions of A-list grandeur: same ludicrous script; same wafer-thin, cardboard characters; same inane dialog; same jarringly inappropriate attempts at humor. We even get nods to key elements from the Irwin Allen playbook: a sleek underwater craft that looks strikingly like the Voyage flying sub; and a precocious kid who seems far more intelligent than most of the nearby adults.

(With no offense intended to Billy Mumy, Shuya Sophia Cai’s Meiying is a lot cuter than Will Robinson on his best day.)

And when director Jon Turteltaub and his three writers — Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber — aren’t mimicking Voyage, they’re ripping off Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Same underwater-whatzit-towing-a-floating-platform shot. Same ocean-bound jump scares. (I’m surprised nobody here said “We need a bigger boat.”)

The Meg is yet another entry in the recent wave of U.S./Asian co-productions, in this case Warner Bros. aligned with China’s Gravity Pictures. As was the case with Pacific Rim: Uprising and Skyscraper, such collaborations give us not the best of both cultures, but the worst. Enduring lazy, sloppy, lowest-common-denominator Hollywood junk is bad enough; watching it intertwined with equally vapid Chinese pop-culture elements is a special sort of torture.

This is the nadir of summertime popcorn adventure, bereft of even the faintest semblance of reasonable behavior by anything approaching a credible character. The Meg is a live-action cartoon, which I suppose can be enjoyed on that level, if viewers are willing to check expectations at the box office.

But don’t expect anything better than the Syfy Channel’s deservedly maligned Sharknado series. Much of Monday evening’s sold-out preview audience spent a lot of time unleashing eye-rolling snickers of contempt.

The Meg began life as a 1997 novel by American science-fiction author Steven Robert Alten, who built it into a franchise that has produced six more books as of this year’s Meg: Generations, with another expected in 2019. (The mind doth boggle.) This film’s script borrows very little aside from the first novel’s basic premise: that the Mariana Trench is much deeper than believed, because its “bottom” actually is a cold water layer that covers a hitherto undiscovered sub-ocean, populated by all manner of strange creatures.

Including a massive prehistoric shark known as a megalodon. (An actual creature, as far as we know; a model of megalodon jaws can be viewed at the American Museum of Natural History.)


During a prologue, deep-sea rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) saves 11 men from a crippled submarine, but is forced to leave two companions behind after seeing a massive something batter the sub’s hull. Nobody believes him, including colleague Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), who insists Jonas hallucinated and — in an act of cowardice — left two men to die.

(Jason Statham? Cowardly? Puh-leaze.)

Flash-forward five years. Obnoxious American gazillionaire Morris (Rainn Wilson) visits Mana One, the lavish oceanic research platform and undersea lab that he financed 200 miles off the coast of China. He’s just in time to watch as a research submersible slowly penetrates the cold-water layer at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, revealing an entirely new deep-sea realm that begs to be explored.

The submersible is “flown” by Lori (Jessica McNamee); her two tech companions are Toshi (Masi Oka) and a crewman dubbed — I’m not making this up — “The Wall” (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson). Topside, in the primary control center, their progress is monitored by famed oceanographer Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao); his daughter Suyin (Bingbing Li), the facility’s chief marine biologist; station chief Mac (Cliff Curtis); lead engineer and sub designer Jaxx (Ruby Rose); remote control pilot DJ (Page Kennedy); and, in an astonishing coincidence, Heller, as the facility physician.

Zhang and Suyin aren’t merely research scientists; they believe so strongly in Mana One that they also live there full-time ... which explains the presence of Suyin’s young daughter, Meiying.

Needless to say, Lori and her team find Something Nasty down there, and in the process get stuck, with only hours of oxygen left. Only one man can save her, and — wouldn’t you know it? — as Jonas’ ex-wife, Lori is the only person for whom he’d come out of “retirement.”

Amazingly, Zhang and Mac somehow locate Jonas at his scruffy digs in Thailand, and persuade him to join them, and get him back to Mana One, and plunk him (somewhat unwillingly) into another submersible ... all before Lori and her companions run out of air. Rarely has movie time been distorted so atrociously.

Naturally, things continue to go awry. Some folks die. Others don’t. And because we’ve all seen this in the tell-too-much trailer, you won’t be surprised to learn that the megalodon escapes to the surface world, where fresh havoc can be wreaked.

Most notably among the thousands of unsuspecting Chinese beachgoers enjoying the surf at the nearby Sanya Resort, where — in a jaw-dropping display of bad taste — Turteltaub attempts to milk slapstick farce with carnage, as random swimmers are eviscerated and gobbled up. On top of which — I’m not making this up, either — we’re apparently supposed to care more about a little Yorkie named Pippin, belonging to the bride in a yacht-bound wedding party, which foolishly decides to take an ocean swim.

Georgaris, Hoeber and Hoeber are willing to acknowledge having written this swill? That may be a braver act than anything seen onscreen.

Most of our multi-national characters are little more than stereotypes. Suyin is impetuously reckless (with seems out of line for a single mother with a young child). The heavily tattooed Jaxx is ultra-cool, with her eyes partially obscured by strands of hair. DJ supplies comic relief, as the guy who constantly screams, “Are you out of your minds?”

Zhang, exuding the nobility of a dedicated scientist, speaks in Hushed Tones. Mac, as Jonas’ one true friend, makes constant remarks about his buddy’s love life. Morris is a constant, condescending pain in the tuchus, whose ill-timed, smart-aleck remarks make us wince as much as the characters being addressed.

Given the formulaic inevitability of dumb-bunny scripts such as these, we know that Morris is destined for a bad end. It couldn’t come quickly enough.

Thank goodness for the rugged Statham: the only actor who charges forward with the right blend of attitude and macho resourcefulness, thanks to having built a career on the basis of equally preposterous action thrillers. He, alone among all the others, is fun to watch.

Well, OK; little Shuya Sophia Cai is adorable. But that’s it.

Production values and special effects are top-notch; there’s no question that a lot of money was hurled onto the screen ($150 million, if reports are to be believed). The film looksgreat, and ol’ Meg is an impressively nasty beastie.

But it remains a shame, given so much to play with, that Turteltaub and All Concerned settled for so little. The Meg isn’t even good enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure.

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