How do you make a film that appeals equally to American and Chinese audiences without alienating either? That’s the question posed by The Meg, which tries to envisage a giant shark as common ground between American and Chinese action genres. Over the last decade, campy shark films have become a kind of parody apocalypse mode unto themselves, lampooning the spectacles of global destruction that were taken so seriously by Hollywood in the build up to 2012, and in the wake of widespread consensus around global warming. Freqeuently featuring sharks that have been spliced with some other creature, or else sharks removed from their normal habitats, these Sharknado instalments, or Sharknado ripoffs, have all poked fun at the idea of global apocalypse as an object of sublime spectacle and aesthetic veneration. Instead, they use the prospect of apocalypse to riff on the inherently picaresque and heterogeneous nature of globalism itself, evoking a world too fractured and incompletely developed to ever admit any one response to mass destruction.
Something of that quality carries over to The Meg, which also deals with a shark hybrid – in this case, the Megaladon, a massive prehistoric shark, and the largest aquatic organism to have ever lived. Long believed to be extinct, the Megaladon, or the Meg for short, is disturbed by a research station set stationed over the Philippine Trench. No sooner are we introduced to the transnational crew of this station that we discover that their prime object of study is the sea floor at the bottom of the trench. Initially, this was considered to be solid ground, but recent research has showed that what presented itself as sand on sonar surveys is actually a dense layer of hydrogen gas – a freezing thermocline that has kept a much deeper pocket of ocean hidden for millions of years. The first part of the film follows a crew of explorers as they move down through this layer of gas to explore the actual sea bed beneath, often recalling James Cameron’s The Abyss as we move from one layer to the next.
Over this first act, John Turteltaub establishes a distinct bathymetric texture, favouring slow pans across and through the water that are charged with a greasy murkiness, a bit like how things actually look underwater when viewed through goggles or glass. That’s only enhanced when we reach the actual bottom of the trench, where a series of massive thermal vents perpetually disorient and distort the field of vision, until it’s hard to tell where water ends and underwater topography begins. Within that zone, the Meg is doubly disorienting, since it’s so big, and appears so suddenly, that it effectively commands the field of vision before you have a chance to properly process it. While this murky style is utterly eviscerated by the third act of the film, that sense of scale never goes away, as Turteltaub has to cloak his mise-en-scenes in huge swathes of space, and hang them around massive architectural set pieces, in order to even come close to evoking the Meg’s enormity.
In other words, what’s scary about the Meg is not so much its appearance – it’s just a shark – as its scale. Inevitably, any American-Chinese blockbuster has to encompass the space between the US and China, and as the film proceeds the Meg becomes more or less synonymous with this space. In that respect, the film draws as much on deep sea thrillers as parody apocalypse, especially those deep sea thrillers such as The Abyss, or Sphere, in which the bottom of the ocean is taken as a cipher for media horizons, and figurative thresholds at which the language of Hollywood confronts its representational limitations. In this case, the sea bed functions in a twofold way, since while it may initially reveal an utterly self-contained, hermetic ecosystem, the consequences of that ecosystem – and of the Meg’s escape – are a catastrophe of unprecedented global proportions, as well as a catastrophe that joins American and Chinese interests in a particularly acute way. In other words, the sea bed here promises self-containment, but instead delivers porosity, setting the stage for an action film that is more globalised, in both atmosphere and address, than any I’ve seen.
By the time we get to the second act, which follows the crew as they pursue the Meg across the surface of the ocean, The Meg has therefore already started to splinter into two films. The first is a gung-ho action film, in which it’s par for the course that Jason Statham will strip off his shirt and dive into the ocean to face the Meg head on. As an English actor, it feels a bit strange, at first, that Statham is the mouthpiece for what is essentially the American component of the film, but so much of his career has involved comically contending with global forces using an action lexicon that his presence here quickly feels quite natural. The second film is more akin to a Chinese romance, and focuses on Statham’s relationship with a Chinese scientist, Suyin Zhang, played by Lil Bingbing, and her daughter Meiying, played by Shuya Sophia Cai. Although it’s surrounded by monster shark talk, this part of the film feels much more refined and otherworldly, clad in pastoral hues and scored to syntheisized panpipes. Neither part of the film quite comes together, and both feel slightly dubbed, producing an oddly picaresque atonality that’s never quite a thriller, and never quite comic.
On top of all that, The Meg has a strange narrative momentum that results, in part, from never really setting foot on land, or aligning itself with any land mass or continent. With the exception of a brief interlude in Thailand that plays more like a flashback anyway, the vast majority of the film plays out in international waters, only glimpsing land at all in the final act, in which the crew follow the Meg to Sanya Bay in Hainan Province. Even here, however, the bay is so massive, and so populated by swimmers – it’s like a small country afloat – that it effectively displaces any need for actual land, or a stable place for the film to set anchor. That just makes the tone feel all the more fluidly provisional, as the murkiness of the first act give way to a bright tribute to one of China’s biggest pleasure spots. In the process, all the suspense is subsumed into the picaresque comedy of big-budget Chinese blockbusters, effectively deflating the Meg of any real power to terrify or even kill. While the giant shark may storm its way through the swimmers, the only deaths we see come from a pair of helicopters that collide while their drivers are trying to take the best aerial shots of the Meg, part of a wacky sense of kitsch that ensures that this entire sequence already feels as if it’s been shared multiple times on social media, and neutralised and dispersed by social media.
That all culminates with the bizarre ending, which doesn’t take place back at the research station, or even on the pursuit ship, but on board a local yacht where an elaborate and picaresque Chinese wedding is taking place. Against that backdrop, Statham also decides to commit to Suyin, despite the fact that he has a much better rapport with his ex, Lori, played by Jessica McNamee, who was one of the original scientists trapped by the Meg beneath the thermocline, and was the only reason he returned from retirement to take up deep sea diving in the first place. In any American action film, the reunion of this estranged couple would be a given, so it’s quite uncanny to see Statham instead hook up with Suyin, especially since their rapport has been fairly limited across the film. And in that strange conjunction lies the strangeness of the film as a whole, which never really resolves its atonalities, but instead revels in them, as an amped-up Chinese version of “Hey, Mickey” pumps out over the closing credits. Whereas Crazy Rich Asians tries to seamlessly subsume American and Chinese capitalism into one globally relevant and compelling entity, then, The Meg realises that their differences – their intractable differences – are the best foundation for the kind of transnational spectacle it’s attempting, and that atonality is what ultimately makes the film so memorable and surprising, if quite disorienting and discombobulating too.