There have been two great creature feature booms in American cinema and both of them happened thanks to Steven Spielberg. After the game-changing success of Jaws, film studios cranked out a number of lower budgeted animal attack films. Those petered out as the '80s came to a close but Spielberg would return to B-movie horror in a big way with 1993's Jurassic Park.
This time, studios decided to up the ante when it came to their own monster features. No longer would these movies be bargain bin write-offs. This sub-genre was going to go for broke with bigger budgets, bigger stars, and a knowing sense of fun. This is the era that gave us movies like Anaconda, Lake Placid, Deep Rising (check out our episode on that!), and Deep Blue Sea. All of these have become beloved creature features in their own right.
But, when the '00s rolled around, the sub-genre became relegated to direct-to-video and TV movie fare. The budgets, talent, and creative energy decreased in every way. The most distressing element was that the sense of knowing fun had evolved into pure irony. No longer were these films celebrations. They were mocking jokes at best and dismissive trash at worst.
Why all this preamble? Because it's important context when looking at how special The Meg really is. Based on the bestseller from Steve Alten (listen to our interview with him!), The Meg is a return to the kind of big-budget creature feature goodness we were getting spoiled with in the '90s. Does it reach the heights of those other films? Only time will tell, but what we're given is a pretty great addition to this particular sub-genre.
It's worth noting that the divergences from the source material are numerous. That might be disappointing to longtime fans of the books, but I find it a negligible factor considering The Meg has to aspire to be a modern blockbuster instead of the kind of type of action story the book told in the '90s. Audiences are far savvier than they've ever been and The Meg addresses that by balancing a joyous tone with genuine large-scale thrills.
Adding to the peppy feel of the film is the casting. Many folks felt they knew The Meg was leaning into full-on ridiculousness when Jason Statham was cast in the lead role of Jonas Taylor. But, Statham doesn't go nearly as goofy as he does in the Fast & Furious films. He's channeling the kind of '80s reluctant heroes we used to see all the time: jaded, rough-edged, but with a heart of gold and ready to jump into the fray in a moment's notice. Some might argue that Statham never feels believable in the role, but I'd counter and say that he's as believable as John McClane or Dutch Schaefer. This is a bigger than life hero and Statham's approach to him is perfectly in tune with the film's sensibilities.
There are also a number of strong supporting turns from the other cast members. Rainn Wilson gets a number of laughs as the cocky billionaire who funds the aquatic research station -- Wilson gets a simple but rousing line that had my audience cheering -- and Cliff Curtis is a warm and often jokey presence as Jonas's old buddy, Mac. Masi Oka gets a surprisingly heartfelt bit as marine scientist Toshi, and Page Kennedy might have watched a lot of LL Cool J as Preacher in Deep Blue Sea to prepare for his role. That is a plus in my book.
Unfortunately, the entire cast doesn't quite break through. Li Bingbing just can't connect with Jason Statham to provide the necessary chemistry those two characters need. In truth, their slightly romantic subplot is the weakest link in the film. Thankfully, it doesn't culminate into a total cliche and isn't in danger of tanking the whole film. Also, Ruby Rose is just kind of wasted here. She's not bad but she feels incredibly backgrounded for so much of the film's running time.
Now, onto the real star of the show: the shark. It's obvious that the titular megalodon has been realized through digital effects and that means some shots will look better than others. However, there are moments where the shark is framed in really striking ways, including one shot during a kill that is a direct reference to the creepiest shot in Jaws. There is also a fully practical shark that's used in one part of the movie, but it's probably a spoiler if I explain the circumstances.
More importantly, the shark has a great presence in the film. The movie builds up the reveal of the megalodon with an appropriate amount of tension and doesn't skimp on showing the shark once it's out in the open. And we're given plenty of moments where we understand the scale of the megalodon. The Meg uses its villain's size as a vehicle for some truly glee-inducing moments such as a gigantic beach massacre and a final showdown that's as goofy as it is crowd-pleasing.
Also, this is a propulsive and well-paced movie. With the exception of the aforementioned romance, nothing ever feels saggy or bloated. There is a snappiness to the editing that keeps the film chugging along without becoming rushed. Props to director Jon Turteltaub for crafting a flick that looks like every bit of its enormous budget was put to good use. This is a handsome blockbuster and maintains a sense of scale and coherence throughout its entire running time. That sounds like it should be a standard in action filmmaking but it's becoming rarer with these mega-budget flicks.
At the end of the day, you should know if The Meg is going to be the kind of movie that piques your interest (the final gag of the film just before the credits roll will likely determine where you stand with this film). I think The Meg is the most enjoyable movie of the summer. This is a full-throttle throwback to the kinds of movies that helped shape me into a lover of cinema. To see such a jubilant return to creature feature blockbuster territory is something special. The fact that The Meg pulls that off while also being a pure dose of popcorn pleasure is downright magical. We should be getting one of these movies a year. Here's hoping this gets the trend started again.