Having a Think

The Meg: the best international unity we’re likely to get

The Meg is a dumb and fun shark film that offers a look at the possible trans-Pacific future of blockbusters.

DISCLAIMER: I like shark films. Mostly Deep Blue Sea. I think it’s a fun film and sometimes that’s enough. People get eaten by sharks. It’s funny and scary in the way you want a non-taxing rollercoaster ride to be. So, you can imagine how excited I was to see The Meg swim into the shallows I was splashing about in. I’ve seen it twice now and I think it’s more than just everything you could want from a shark film. In fact, I think it’s an important step towards media that gives international audiences a chance to think more positively of each other.

Shark film is a weird genre. They’re essentially just disaster movies, but the disaster is the shark. They come with their own versions of disaster movie tropes and often sit closer to horror than your average meteor or super-volcano film does. You can link them to the waves of hysteria about swimmers being eaten by sharks and I’m sure if you look deep at it, you’ll see the films and the panic help each other out. But, at the same time, who cares? Just like the panic, they play well on that universal gut fear of deep water, imagining that something will come out of it to eat you in the same way we imagine monsters in the dark.

While Jaws‘ shark gimmick is one super vindictive shark and Deep Blue Sea gives you a few hyper-intelligent sharks, The Meg‘s simple draw is one big dinosaur era monstrosity (although, SPOILERS: there’s more than one). As a shark film I think it’s successful. You get lots of tense splashing, lots of looming jaws in the dark, and people gruesomely torn apart. There’s maybe too many scenes in relative security, but the characters are cool enough that I’m happy to be spending time with them all.

The narratives that the movie offers are mostly surprisingly progressive as well. The ridiculously wealthy billionaire character projects a redemption arc, but is secretly plotting to secure his finances. That plot culminated in a great moment where he’s eaten next to a whale he’s literally exploded. There’s also a short scene condemning shark fin poachers. It’s a nice detail that the shark film takes time out to project some sympathy to actual sharks. You could maybe argue there’s a fear of science narrative, one character musing that ‘we did what people always do, discover then destroy’. However, considering that the film is drenched in characters that are scientists and experts, The Meg could be much worse on this front. It’s no Godzilla: King of Monsters. That film flat out said the ecologists want to kill everyone.

It’s a great film. Simple, stupid, fun. But, that’s not all it is. There’s something big swimming in the bank statements of this film and that is that this is a big collaboration between American and Chinese production companies. From the looks of it, it paid off. The budget is estimated at $130mil and while it was projected to be a flop, it instead made the money back in America and then went on to get the budget back again in China. Worldwide, the film ended up making over $500mil.

Money-wise it’s a smart move and one that isn’t unique. Skyscraper, another disaster movie from the same year as The Meg, featuring Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson dangling from a collapsing building, was a production by 3 main companies: Steve Bucks Productions, Flynn Picture Company, and Legendary Pictures. All three are American companies, but in 2016 Legendary became a subsidiary of China’s Wanda Group. Skyscraper ended up performing pretty badly in America, making back $68mil of a $125mil budget. In China, however, Skyscraper made $132mil.

Of course, the funding is opaque. We can’t see the breakdown of who gave what, but we can see how it looks on the finished product. The source material (yes, The Meg is based on a series of 6 going on 7 novels by Steve Alten) is American and a little different from the film in some telling ways, most notably is the setting. The novel takes place at the Mariana Trench, but the film is off the coast of China. This is most likely so we can get the final confrontation of the film as the meg heads towards a beautiful and busy beach, Sanya Bay.

This is likely a pitch for the nice tourist destination, it does look lovely and I imagine the prehistoric shark is a rare feature. To criticise this would maybe be fair, but it would also hold The Meg to pretty ludicrous standards above the rest of the industry. Most blockbusters at the moment are full of product placement, even Jurassic World, a film which seems to be making a statement about product placement, is full of it even at points inconsistent to its apparent argument.

While a ragtag bunch of international geniuses is a frequent feature of disaster movies, this can also point to the way the film is being marketed around the world. Jason Statham is English, but a household American name thanks to his features in the Fast and Furious franchise, Transporter films, and The Expendables. Page Kennedy and Rainn Wilson are American; Li Bingbing is Chinese; Winston Chao is Taiwanese; Jessica McNamee, Ruby Rose, and Robert Taylor are Australian; Ólafur Darri Ólafsson is Icelandic; Cliff Curtis is a New Zealander; and Masi Oka is Japanese. The cast is a marketing tool, it often is, but here we see a big international pitch paying off, The Meg performing well in every one of these territories.

I think it’s possible to stop at this point and say ‘why should I care? Good for these massive companies cracking a chance to make a tonne more money, making films with huge budgets that are less likely to bomb’. It’s also possible, especially when looking at Disney’s recent attempts, to see this step into international waters as threatening a film’s integrity. This is of course not to argue that Disney ever had any integrity to begin with. There is no ethical consumption (and likely, little ethical production) under capitalism, we’re forced to make concessions about what we consume from media to food everyday. That’s why I’m going to make the case that there’s a light in this tunnel of international film-making, and to do that I want to look at a love triangle.

The Meg has one of the most positive ex-spouse narratives I’ve ever seen. Jason Statham is drawn into the story by his ex-wife, Jessica McNamee, being stuck at the bottom of the sea. She’s running out of oxygen, the pressure is building, and an unidentified creature (it’s the meg) is outside the submersible. It’s safe at the start of the film to assume that by the end they’ll have made up and got back together. They’ll maybe shout at each other a few times in the process, then at the heat of the danger they’ll kiss and we’ll forget there was ever any issue. Astoundingly, however, this does not happen. They’re not even catty towards each other. Instead, Statham has some pretty sweet chemistry with Li Bingbing’s character and gets on like a house on fire with her daughter. Later on in the film, Statham and McNamee even have a heart to heart where she’s happy to see him move on with Bingbing. This is what the fuck levels of emotional maturity that I don’t think I’ve seen in a film, like ever. And it’s in a shark film.

I think Bingbing x Statham is a symbolic romance. At a time when public hysteria about China in the West is at a high, where companies are being banned and students are accused of being spies, xenophobia has been seen to be rising and people are being caught in the middle of government level dealings. Not to get all Crusader Kings III, but historically a romance has been a union for the nation. These unions haven’t always worked well, Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI at a time when anti-Austrian xenophobia was at a boiling point in France and that famously didn’t work out. But, the power of culture is often underestimated. If the trend of international film-making continues then we will hopefully see more of these positive relationships that can serve as subtle shifts towards unity.

The Meg isn’t going to solve international tensions, but I think it does a pretty good job for a film about a big shark.

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