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In 1997, “MEG: A Novel of Deep Terror,” became a runaway bestseller thanks to the innate appeal of a giant prehistoric shark terrorizing scientists in the middle of the ocean. It took over 20 years of development for this ludicrous summer popcorn fodder to become a movie. There may be any number of reasons for such a delay, but one of them was the gestation period required to turn Jason Statham into an action star. The perennial British tough guy has steeped his career in bringing a ferocious intensity to cartoonish escapism, and in the best cases — the “Crank” movies chief among them — elevated the spectacle to surreal heights. By meeting the absurdity of each twist with a self-serious masculine attitude, he brings order to ridiculous worlds. He’s not only the best part of “The Meg”; he’s the only part that kind of works.
In “The Meg,” Statham plays disgraced deep-sea rescue diver Jonas, called back to action after an undersea observation program leads to a submersible getting trapped at the bottom of the ocean, where a clearly hungry, 75-foot megalodon circles. In short order, the operation brings the creature back up with it, and Statham spends much of the movie alongside an anxious marine crew concocting new ideas for killing it — mostly on his own, diving into the water more than once to take the beast on up close.
There’s enough unapologetic inanity to these ongoing showdowns that director Jon Turteltaub could have designed the whole movie around them. At one point, when Jonas leaps into another battle with the meg, the movie comes pretty close to breaking the fourth wall. There’s a brief pause, and one of the team members (a disheveled Rainn Wilson) belts out, “Hell yeah!” He speaks for all of us. When Statham and his foe tussle up close, Turteltaub delivers the summer’s guiltiest pleasure.
And yet nothing in “The Meg” can keep pace with the underlying appeal of those recurring fights. The movie has been populated with an international cast clearly designed to enhance the global box office potential, but it often leads to actors delivering weak line readings in second languages. The English itself often sounds as though it’s been boiled down to the lowest common denominator, to the point where you could watch “The Meg” as a silent film and get the gist.
Still, you’d be stuck with a couple of long-winded scenes. The movie has a curious schizophrenic quality; Turteltaub often interrupts the action for mindless strategy sessions, inane (non) scientific explanations, and family bonding. (There are multiple exes and current relatives aboard the main ship, and not everyone survives the excursion.)
Still, the screenplay provides a handful of endearing characters, including Wilson’s smarmy overseer, and marine biologist Suyin (Lin Bingbing), who provides Statham with a partner in crime and a love interest. In a few scenes, the pair almost generate bonafide chemistry, and of course it’s refreshing to see a blockbuster with an interracial couple that doesn’t waste time overplaying it. They’re just a natural fit.
Ultimately, though, “The Meg” belongs to the monster of the title. Decades after “Jaws” turned the conceit of a water-bound carnivore into pure horror based on what you don’t see, “The Meg” falls in step with today’s CGI-laden obsessions by letting it all hang out. The shark — or is it sharks? — snaps its massive jaws and dives through the air as if its animation designs only included two modes. That’s all well and good in a pitch-black gag that finds it massacring a color-coded beach filled with oblivious partiers, but the movie fails to reconcile its cheekiness with the bonafide sci-fi survival tropes that enshroud the scenes on the ship.
Ultimately, “The Meg” suffers from comparisons two superior comparisons. Alexandre Aja’s brilliant B-movie excursion “Piranha 3D” transformed the horror movie premise of the original into a live action comic book that flaunted outrageous genre tropes like a firecracker; Turteltaub never gains such confidence in the material to let it go all-out bonkers.
And then there’s Shark Week. “Haven’t you guys ever seen ‘Shark Week’?” Wilson’s character asks the crew as they talk through ideas for tracking their marine assailant. “The Meg” makes a pretty good case for why we should: Statham remains an appealing summer movie fixture, but sharks deserve better than this.
“The Meg” opens nationwide on Friday, August 10.