Who could have guessed that the scene in “Jaws” where Sheriff Brody says they’re going to need a bigger boat would spawn 40 years’ worth of thrillers? Ever since Steven Spielberg’s nautical adventure became one of the top-grossing movies of all time, movie studios have tried to bite off a piece of its success by serving up their own nature-in-revolt films—as well as films about inhuman and even mechanical stalkers that, to quote that same film’s ichthyologist Hooper, exist only to kill, consume and make more of their ilk.
It started in the 1970s with movies like “Grizzly,” “Piranha,” “Tentacles” and “Prophecy” (where the monster was a giant bear mutated by pollution). The homage/theft continued, in disguised fashion and on a parallel track, in the stalker movies of the late ’70s and early ’80s (particularly “Halloween,” the original “Terminator,” and the original “Alien,” which was sold to its studio as “Star Wars” meets “Jaws’ in a haunted house), and more officially via through “Anaconda” and “Lake Placid” and finally this year’s “The Meg,” about an enormous prehistoric shark that escapes from the bottom of the ocean and wreaks havoc on the surface. Directed by Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure”) and starring bullet-headed action hero Jason Statham, “The Meg” is a modestly bloody, sometimes sentimental, mostly lighthearted fusion of “Jaws” and another Spielberg classic, “Jurassic Park.” The latter was recently rebooted as “Jurassic World”; a key scene in that one showed visitors to a Sea World-type arena cheering as a Jaws-like great white was dangled in midair as bait for a sharklike aquatic dinosaur known as a Mosasaurus.
Tracing the chain of associations, remakes, inspirations and ripoffs that brought us to this point would’ve been an irrelevant film nerd’s exercise if “The Meg” didn’t all but compel it, by serving up its own version of nearly every memorable moment from the original “Jaws” plus several of its sequels. The list includes the mass terror in the harbor filled with bathers, scenes where the heroes tag the shark with a tracking device and try to kill it with explosives and harpoons, some helicopter action plus a version of the teens-on-a-raft section of the second “Jaws,” a moderately scary sequence in an underwater laboratory reminiscent of moments in “Jaws 3-D,” and a man-on-fish showdown reminiscent of Quint’s final struggle with the shark in the original “Jaws” (but with a happy ending). The movie is so shamelessly indebted to “Jaws” that during a climatic moment, Harry Gregson-Williams’ score even subtly alludes to John Williams’ iconic four-note “Here comes the teeth” main theme. Turteltaub and the movie’s four credited screenwriters also work in references to “Moby-Dick” and the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale (Staham’s character is even named Jonas). The story even resolves itself with a slight nod to one of Jonah’s threats against the Leviathan, to leash the creature by its tongue and let the other fish eat it.
Statham, who like his contemporary Dwane Johnson is always happy to go right up to the edge of self-parody and even cross over, plays Jonas as an obsessive but disgraced figure. Jonas is a search-and-rescue badass written off as a coward for abandoning a nuclear sub on the bottom of the ocean after he became convinced that the Megaladon was what destroyed it and was certain to kill everyone who was still alive if he didn’t get the survivors out of there pronto. Like Ripley in the second “Alien,” he’s the only one alive who can verify the existence of the monster.
So of course when we first meet him he’s a hard-drinking exile, basically Quint but with great abs and more people skills. The billionaire who funded the research station (Rainn Wilson) and two of Jonas’ trusted colleagues, Cliff Curtis’ Mac and Winston Chao’s Zhang, beg Jonas to come and rescue a submersible containing Jonas’ ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) that’s gotten trapped on the same stretch of the ocean floor where the hero first encountered the Meg. And then the Meg escapes from the ocean floor and ships start going down and people start getting torn apart in the water, and hey, look, it’s the movie you paid to see.
There’s a parallel story that posits Zhang’s daughter, Suyin (Bingbing Li), an oceanographer and single mom to an adorable young daughter Meying (Sophia Cai), as the main character in the film, and whenever the hardbitten Jonas is in the presence of either of them, he warms up and smiles and even tells jokes. The film genuflects in the direction of giving both of these adults a happy ending by rewarding their heroism with an intact nuclear family that will give Meiying a father, Suyin an intellectual partner and best friend to replace her dad, and Jonas a reason to trust humanity again. But the movie doesn’t hammer too hard on any of that stuff, a rare instance where it gets things just about right rather than doing too much or too little, which is usually the case.
The movie’s never dull, frequently funny and occasionally inspired, particularly in the climactic shark assault on a marina filled with bathers. But it feels not-quite-there somehow. Despite the shark-on-human and human-on-shark violence, and a fair amount of (mostly fish-related) blood and gore, it doesn’t have much impact either as a high seas thriller or a science fiction fantasy. And there are plentiful signs that it was undermined in the editing. A lot of the cutting, not just from scene to scene but within scenes, is choppy and awkward, failing to show you what you want or need to see at the moment when ought to. And Statham’s granite-faced determination in the action sequences promises a much rougher adventure than is actually delivered. (Statham has indicated that Turteltaub shot the film as a ridiculously nasty “R” thriller but it was cut to earn a PG-13 rating.)
The most impressive thing about “The Meg” is that it manages to have any personality at all, given its obsessive self-awareness of being a “Jaws” ripoff and its equally blatant status as a deal memo that somehow managed to get filmed. It’s obviously a project that wouldn’t exist without the Chinese filmgoing market—it’s set in the Pacific Rim, stars many Asian actors and never once mentions the United States as a factor in any of the main action. It might intrigue aficionados of Asian action cinema, for the way it tries to be both a classic, “Jaws”-styled American thriller and a Pacific monster film at the same time. The almost religious sentimentalization of motherhood here feels more Chinese than American, as does the particular way that the leather-souled Jonas instinctively knows how to talk to the little girl. The marina sequence boasts candy-colored production design and numerous, borderline-slapstick gags, including an extended bit involving a wedding party and an impeccably groomed poodle, and numerous shots of oblivious bathers traversing the ocean’s surface in transparent rolling plastic bubbles; it’s like something that South Korea’s Bong Joon-Ho (“The Host,” “Okja”), a great pop filmmaker with a social satirist’s tendencies, might stage, though he surely would’ve done a lot more with it than “The Meg” ultimately delivers. And when the prehistoric shark is fixating on tiny humans, as if the terms of Captain Ahab and Moby-Dick’s relationship had been reversed, the film moves into the realm of a Toho monster movie from the ’60s or ’70s, in which the humans did battle with gigantic rubbery creatures who amounted to manifestations of their own neuroses and ambitions.
The movie needed to be at least 30% crazier than it is. It often feels as if it’s holding something in, like it doesn’t quite feel free enough to be what it truly wants to be, whatever that is.