“Jason Statham fights a 75-foot shark” is the sort of movie logline most people would cook up after killing a six-pack and sharing a bowl of sativa—too hilariously batshit to be embraced by a modern studio. But somehow, in this constellation of awful weirdness that is 2018, something beautiful happened: Warner Brothers decided to spend $150 million to turn the Statham vs. Shark idea into a film.
It’s called The Meg and it arrives in theaters this week.
I’m not joking. There is an actual movie coming out on Friday that features Statham—an A-list actor known for playing dapper cockney tough guys—as a rescue diver who goes mano a mano with a prehistoric shark, the Carcharodon Megalodon, aka “Meg,” for the syllabically challenged.
The Meg is based on Steve Alten’s best-selling 1997 book, Meg: A Novel Of Deep Terror , which garnered a cult following. But the film’s liberally adapted plot, which involves scientists getting trapped in a deep sea trench with the monster shark, appears to be a preamble for Jason Statham to zip into a wetsuit and pilot a submersible towards the Meg’s gaping jaws while uttering one-liners like, “Chew on this, you ugly ____.” (One can only hope the coup de grace of that line starts with a “c” and rhymes with punt.)
The $150 million investment on this film is roughly what it cost to produce Mad Max: Fury Road, and its price tag is one factor that sets The Meg apart from smaller shark flicks like 47 Meters Down and the direct-to-video Sharknado series. It’s a tentpole blockbuster with a major star battling a big ass creature—in this case, a Megalodon—and The Meg marks the return of a beloved American genre gone dormant: the workingman’s creature feature.
The genre formula works like this: First, you pick a terrestrial creature—say, a shark—and you supersize it. Then you book the most illustrious and expensive performer available, and you cast them as the “workingman” protagonist. This character is usually a niche professional—say, Statham’s rescue diver—whose job affords them insight on the featured creature: oftentimes they’ve seen the creature before and nobody believes them. They spend the first half of the film being ridiculed and reprimanded by their ignorant, asshole superiors. It’s a distinct blue collar/white collar dynamic: a hard-working, earnest, street-smart hero getting disrespected by establishment powerbrokers.
Then the creature shows up, the hero is vindicated, and a ton of people get gorily devoured. From here, the hero leads an effort to dispatch the creature, and for a few sweet minutes, they experience the satisfaction of having everyone in the establishment under their thumb and ready to take marching orders. This is the American dream incarnate.
Hollywood used to make lots of movies like this. In 1977, there was Orca , which features Charlotte Rampling and Richard Harris fighting an enraged killer whale that, at one point, bites off Bo Derek’s leg. A year later, in 1978, Warner Brothers put out the The Swarm , in which killer bees terrorize Texas, only to meet their match in a scientist played by… I swear, I’m not making this up… Michael Caine. Audiences gobbled these films up, and more contemporary genre entries like Tremors and Lake Placid kept the workingman’s creature feature fashionable.
“I like to call these ‘revenge of nature films,’” Dr. Andrew Scahill, an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at the University of Colorado Denver, told VICE. “It’s mankind wrestling with the realization that we’re not at the top of the food chain. A lot of these films came out in the 1970s when there was growing environmental anxiety. Silent Spring had just been published, and with it, you had this idea that all the destruction we’ve wrought upon the planet will soon turn around and bite us. And yet, what’s paradoxical about these films—especially those produced during conservative eras—is that the “solution” almost always involves wreaking further damage upon nature.”
The Meg began churning towards production in the early 2000s, just as “climate change” entered the American lexicon. From the beginning, the suits at Disney’s now-defunct Hollywood Pictures envisioned the adaptation of Alten’s book as a summer blockbuster. Jan De Bont, the director of Speed, was attached to helm the project at one point. But executive turnover within Hollywood Pictures sank the project and left Alten holding the film rights that Disney had optioned almost immediately after the book was published in 1997.
Coincidentally, the creature feature itself experienced something of a low point around this time. The genre grew more detached from reality ( Pacific Rim ) and self-consciously schlocky ( Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus ). It seemed the genre would be lost on a generation of moviegoers, until The Meg was re-optioned and greenlit in the 2010s. At a glance on Twitter and at the cinema blogosphere, it seems modern audiences are hungry for “man vs. nature” movies, despite the genre’s dormancy.
“I think it’s just bizarre that this hasn’t really been done before,” the author, Alten, told VICE by phone. “The Megalodon was the biggest shark that ever lived. It was a real creature that could still be out there, which makes this more interesting than a movie about dinosaurs.”
Big-ass sharks may still stalk the seas, but the big question many will ask—”Why do we need Statham to save us from a Megalodon now?”—is a reminder that The Meg belongs to a cinematic tradition of anxiety projection and pacification. We’re still scared of environmental chaos (see Paul Schrader’s recent, horrifying First Reformed ) but we’re also reassured by the idea that this chaos can be suppressed by a charismatic hero with a robust work ethic.
“With horror and creature features, you tend to get the most nihilistic stories during progressive periods, but in conservative times, you see more movies in which a violent ‘force of nature’ is repressed,” Scahill said. “During the Great Depression, the most popular movie genre was horror, which doesn’t make sense at first, because you think, ‘Why would people in a depressive economic state want to watch horror?’ But horror, especially in its classic form, really offers a containment narrative. We release something, it wreaks havoc, but in the end, we contain it.”
The Meg opens August 10.
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