WASHINGTON — In 1975, Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws” launched our obsession with sharks.
Now, you’re gonna need a bigger boat, as Hollywood ups the ante with “The Meg,” a larger-than-life action/horror flick that plays it straighter than you’d think, for better and for worse.
Based on the novel by Steve Alten, the story follows brave rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), who tries rescuing a group of stranded scientists in a deep-water submarine that’s been attacked by an unknown beast. Five years later, the jaded Taylor is living in Thailand when he’s called back into action by Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao), who runs a fancy underwater research facility funded by slimy investor Morris (Rainn Wilson) with his own greedy motives.
Taylor agrees because his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee) is trapped in a submersible being attacked by the same mystery beast, which they soon determine is a 70-foot prehistoric Megalodon. As Taylor dukes it out with the giant shark, he also develops feelings for Zhang’s oceanographer daughter Suyin (Bingbing Li) and her daughter Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai).
It’s obviously impossible to make a shark movie without instant comparisons to “Jaws” (1975), like trying to make an archaeology flick without comparisons to Indiana Jones. It’s not easy swimming in the shadow of such an iconic dorsal fin, but the film does get a few things right.
Statham boasts a similar chiseled charisma as his “Furious 7” pal Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, only with a killer shark’s grin. Here, he finds believable romantic chemistry with Bingbing Li (“Transformers 4”), who draws genuine laughs doing a double take at a towel-clad Statham.
Of course, the biggest star is the digital shark, which looks surprisingly authentic thanks to modern-day computer graphics that are able to recreate the look of Discovery’s “Shark Week.” Such tools were not available to Spielberg, whose mechanical shark Bruce infamously didn’t work in a happy accident saved by underwater P.O.V shots and John Williams’ score.
Director Jon Turteltaub (“National Treasure”) appears to learn from Spielberg’s lesson of hiding the shark for the first third of the movie, but once it arrives, it appears far too readily. Still, Turteltaub crafts some effective suspense, as young Meiying follows a rolling ball down a corridor like Danny in “The Shining” (1980), only instead of twin ghosts she meets the shark.
Unfortunately, this finely-crafted sequence is undercut by the fact that the shark hams it up for the camera before it chomps the glass. It’s not as bad as the winking dinosaur in “Jurassic Park: Fallen Kingdom” (2018), but it’s just enough silliness to take us out of the movie.
Meanwhile, it’s easy to predict which characters will die — and in what order — particularly Wilson, who we just know is going to get his comeuppance like Charles Martin Smith in the TV miniseries “The Beast” (1996). Wilson isn’t as deadpan as his Dwight Schrute from TV’s “The Office” (2005), mostly speaking exposition to match Chao’s science-heavy dialogue, the weak point of a script by Dean Georgaris (“Paycheck”) and Jon and Erich Hoeber (“Battleship”).
It all builds to a giant beach climax with two loving callbacks to “Jaws” — first a wooden pier pulled across the water by the underwater shark, then a mom warning her son not to go too far out on his raft. I almost wish Turteltaub would have gone all out by recreating the dolly/zoom “Vertigo” effect that Spielberg gave Chief Brody at the sight of the shark attack.
Which brings us to the film’s core problem: its tone. Turteltaub plays the premise way straighter than you’d expect, treading water between a serious thriller and a tongue-in-cheek “Sharknado” spoof, never becoming truly great at either. Fittingly, the film’s best moment comes at the end credits, an inside joke for cinephiles with a clear double meaning — “Fin.”