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Review: As giganto-shark thrillers go, 'The Meg' could be a lot sharper

Review: As giganto-shark thrillers go, 'The Meg' could be a lot sharper
Jason Statham in the movie "The Meg." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Should you see “The Meg”? The movie itself seems a little doubtful, frankly. At one point in this silly, stilted, moderately jolt-inducing giganto-shark thriller, one character turns to the others and asks, “Don’t you guys ever watch ‘Shark Week’?”

Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. As a rule, though, you should be wary of any movie — particularly one being dropped in mid-August — that’s insecure enough to name-drop a superior programming alternative.

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Then again, there’s something refreshing about an unabashedly derivative B-picture that knows its place in an over-picked food chain. Shark-related content, of course, is unlikely to go extinct anytime soon. “Jaws” may still be the immortal standard-bearer, but as recent summer hits like “The Shallows” and “47 Meters Down” have demonstrated, there are always fresh scares to be mined even from the most formulaic material, so long as a smart, genre-savvy filmmaker is willing to put in the work.

All of which makes “The Meg” a curious if not particularly effectual specimen. Unlike those scrappily resourceful earlier thrillers, which made a virtue of modesty, this one is a splashy U.S.-China co-production with an international grab bag of a cast and a lot of fancy underwater gadgetry. It seems to have been conceived with any number of priorities in mind — cornering the global box office, denouncing the horrors of shark’s fin soup, finding something novel for Jason Statham to punch in the face — but continually gripping the audience for the better part of two hours doesn’t appear to have been one of them.

The title is short for “megalodon,” an enormous species of shark that went extinct more than 2 million years ago but which has been conveniently resurrected and given a starring role here. This particular megalodon, which measures 75 feet long and has a set of jaws that could compact a Hummer with ease, has been more or less content to mind its business in the darkest depths of the ocean. Until now, when a man-made environmental shift allows the shark to escape into shallower waters, threatening unsuspecting boaters and swimmers everywhere.

It somehow sounds a lot more terrifying than it turns out to be. “The Meg,” stolidly directed by Jon Turteltaub (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” “National Treasure”), winds up proving a fairly obvious theory about its chosen sub-genre: the more massive the shark (and the budget), the lighter the scares and the lower the stakes. This is due in part to some bewildering story choices, including a crowded beach attack so tame and anticlimactic you almost wonder if the filmmakers were desperate not to offend a local tourism board.

Swim, Pippin, swim. And don't look behind you.
Swim, Pippin, swim. And don't look behind you. (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

In some ways, though, the lack of tension comes down to simpler matters of physics and technique. The megalodon is a mammoth killing machine but also a clumsy, imprecise one. Its maw, fearsomely sharp though it may be, is so wide and gaping that most of its human victims aren’t torn apart so much as swallowed whole, Monstro-style. A meaningless distinction? Maybe, but it’s been a while since a series of shark-induced deaths left this squeamish critic thinking, “Eh, there are worse ways to go.”

Most of those deaths take place in and around a multimillion-dollar oceanic research facility located some 200 miles off the coast of China and financed by a smug billionaire-bro named Morris (Rainn Wilson, apparently trying to outdo Dwight Schrute for sheer obnoxiousness). His crew of on-board scientists, technicians and divers includes the actors Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Masi Oka, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Ruby Rose and Robert Taylor, who collectively form a veritable international buffet of potential shark snacks.

But then in swims Jonas (Statham), a daredevil ex-diver who arrives to save the day, kill the megalodon and bare his ripped torso for the camera. And whenever he rises to the challenge, “The Meg” does stir to a kind of life. One of the more effective suspense sequences finds Jonas trying to swim close enough to the megalodon to attach a tracking device to its fin. It’s scary, ridiculous and neatly executed, and it works precisely because the stakes suddenly feel intimate and real: You know he’s going to survive it, but how?

I will leave that for you to discover, even if it means sitting through Jonas’ mild flirtation with a diver named Suyin (Chinese star Li Bingbing), his cutesy banter with Suyin’s young daughter (Shuya Sophia Cai) and his belated reunion with his ex-wife, Lori (Jessica McNamee). That’s a lot of downtime, enough to ponder such curiosities as the fact that this movie features characters named Meg, Jo(nas) and Lori. Maybe that’s the key to enjoying “The Meg”: approaching it not as unremarkable summer action fare, but as the weirdest adaptation of “Little Women” you’ll ever see.

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‘The Meg’

(In English and Mandarin with English subtitles)

Rating: PG-13, for action/peril, bloody images and some language

Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes

Playing: In general release

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