There are only so many actual stories to be told. You can change the trappings all you want but one doomed romance or one hero’s journey is pretty much like every other. So when humans find a good story, we tend to keep telling it over and over instead of coming up with something brand new every time. It’s why we’re still watching Shakespeare be performed centuries after his death and why the name of Hercules is remembered through the millennia. Some things just can’t be improved upon.
But human beings also have an endless appetite for the appearance of innovation. That’s how we get King Lear being played by a woman and a Disney cartoon about Hercules as a teenager. Even if we can’t do something new, we still enjoy changing the trappings. This edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown takes a look at the granddaddy of all summer blockbusters and its supersized descendent to consider if we’re the ones actually changing and not just the trappings. It’s “Jaws” (1975) vs. “The Meg” (2018) as a masterpiece created by flawed technology squares off against a far-from-masterpiece made to chase after Chinese yuan.
George Lucas can take the credit or blame for accelerating Hollywood down the path of making movies as corporatized product with “Star Wars” (1977) but he’s not the one who took the first step. Steven Spielberg did that with his motion picture about a great white shark off the shore of an island tourist trap in the northeastern United States that became a box office and cultural phenomenon unlike anything the film industry had seen in decades. “Jaws” made more money and sold more tickets than the two top-grossing movies of 1974 COMBINED and no one walked out of “The Towering Inferno” afraid to go above the fifth floor or left a showing of “Blazing Saddles” scared someone named Mongo was going to knock out their horse. “Jaws” teed up the idea that movies could still make truly ridiculous amounts of money and become mass market cultural touchstones in the TV age. “Star Wars” hit it out of the park.
"Of all the days to forget to wear my cup!"
“Jaws” is about Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), a former New York City police officer who’s become the new chief of police for the small island community of Amity. The island lives off tourism dollars and the 4th of July is coming up, which makes it a great deal more than inconvenient when a shark starts eating anyone who wanders into the waves. Brody first has to battle the mayor (Murray Hamilton) and the local town fathers who demand the beaches be kept open so those tourist dollars will keep flowing. After the fourth shark attack, that become impossible so Brody has to team up with a rich kid shark expert named Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and a fisherman named Quint (Robert Shaw) so crusty he must have been raised on nothing but the crusts cut off the peanut butter sandwiches of other children to take the seas and slay the finny monster.
Based on a novel by Peter Benchley, who co-wrote the script, “Jaws” captivated audiences with its almost Hitchcockian suspense as the shark is kept hidden for most of the movie, then blew them away with oceanic carnage like they’d never seen before. And according to legend, half of that formula was by accident. The story is that the film’s mechanical shark, which is all they could come up with in the days before CGI, had so many problems and worked so unreliably that Spielberg had to fit the movie around those limitations. Not showing us the shark wasn’t a creative choice. It was a technical necessity.
And viewed from the early 21st century, that story seems 100% true. The cheapest CGI shark in the worst SyFy channel shark flick looks better than the wire, plastic, and gear beastie Spielberg had to use. To 1975 audiences who had never seen anything like it, the 25 foot shark in “Jaws” must have been utterly terrifying. Today, the film’s conclusion kind of sucks as visual spectacle and succeeds more as a culmination of everything that led up to it.
When's the last time a summer blockbuster had these kind of actors? One of the other problems of Hollywood is that salaries have gotten so high many flicks can barely afford one star, let alone three.
For a motion picture with an exceedingly basic and straightforward plot, there is a hell of a lot of stuff going on in “Jaws.” There’s the journey of Martin Brody, who left the big city behind to make a difference in a small town but found himself unready when the opportunity presented itself. There’s the class conflict between Quint and Hooper as the working class scrapper and university-schooled adventurer compete and clash over everything from shark cages to scars. There’s the complicated relationship between Brody and Quint, as the police chafes at being under someone else’s authority while Quint becomes almost protective of a man obviously out of his depth in more ways than one. There’s the way the shark attacks are managed as a public relations affair by the Amity city fathers. And there is one of the absolute greatest scenes in cinema history where Quint relates the tale of the ill-fated U.S.S. Indianapolis that delivered the atomic bomb which destroyed Hiroshima and why he’ll never put on a life jacket again. Any one of those could pretty much be the main subplot of an entire movie on their own, and “Jaws” has all of them.
The most striking thing about “Jaws” after all of these years, however, is that while it crystalized the summer blockbuster formula that so many later movies would follow, it remains something that grownups can appreciate as grownups. You don’t have to check your brain into neutral and watch the shapes and colors on screen like a drooling infant. All the characters seem like real people with real pasts, real personalities, and really believable agendas. Brody’s wife (Lorraine Gary) is a role that would be a throwaway piece of eye candy in a modern blockbuster but even though she’s given little to do, Spielberg still puts in the effort to make her a definable and memorable woman. She’s never there simply to service Brody’s story. It always seems like she’s got something of her own going on, we just don’t get to see it. And the plot makes glorious sense. There’s never a moment when you’re left wondering “why are they doing that” or “why aren’t they doing this.”
“Jaws” is the odd great film where the things that truly made it noteworthy in its day have not aged all that well. Even though the action scenes remain expertly executed by Spielberg and his cast, they don’t hold a candle to what even halfwit directors can put on screen now. But it’s the things that 1975 viewers weren’t blown away by because they took that level of storytelling as a given which seem miraculous because so many of today’s movies suck so hard at them.
It was the 1970s, kids. Tying off a cleat was considered an action scene.
Which brings us to “The Meg.” It’s based on a novel by Steve Alten from 1997 when the idea of a giant shark was still relatively new to popular fiction. Since then, there’s been the proverbial buttload of giant shark flicks. Not as many as Bigfoot movies but close. Most of them have aired on the SyFy channel and almost all of them are terrible. In that context, you can fairly says “The Meg” is by far the best bad giant shark movie ever made.
Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is an undersea rescue diver driven into exile after no one believes his excuse that some giant monster was responsible for two members of his team getting killed while saving people from a disabled submarine. But when the deep sea research base run by a generic Chinese scientist named Zhang (Winston Chao) and his daughter (Li Bingbing), who looks more like his slightly younger second wife, strands a research team at the bottom of the ocean after an attack by some giant monster, Taylor is roped back into service. Taylor heads into action, saves most of the research team from the giant shark after one noble sacrifice, and the story concludes after only about an hour. Which is kind of weird because “The Meg” is two hours long.
It is not an exaggeration to describe “The Meg” as a movie and its own sequel crammed together as one. There’s an entire storyarc which is established, developed, and brought to a finish in the first half of the film and then it keeps going. The billionaire who paid for the research station suddenly turns evil for no reason. Taylor’s ex-wife, who was on the stranded research team and is why he came back to save it, is injured and removed from the movie so Taylor can adolescently flirt with the Chinese scientist’s daughter, then she returns with no ill effects…and Taylor continues to adolescently flirt with the Chinese scientist’s daughter. To be fair, the film does try to address the fact that Taylor caring so much about his ex-wife that he risks his life to save her but so little that he immediately moves on to another woman makes no sense, but no amount of Officer Barbrady hand-waving changes the fact it makes no sense. The giant shark, who has an entire ocean of fish to eat, immediately rockets toward a densely populated Chinese resort beach and Taylor and company have to race after to save everyone.
"At least I don't have to worry about getting in between Vin Diesel and The Rock in this movie. Why don't those two just make out and get it over with already?"
You can’t accuse “The Meg” of not giving you your money’s worth but the reason it can cram so much plot into one movie is because there’s genuinely no effort put into any other aspect of the story. The characters are so simplistically conceived and portrayed that they barely qualify as one-dimensional. It’s like they come from some bizarre three-quarters dimension and all you can see of them is an eye and a spleen and a left Achilles tendon. Any science in the script is dispensed with as exposition. You could make a drinking game out of all the things left over from earlier drafts of the screenplay which are no longer necessary to the movie but no one bothered to remove them. Most of the humor in the movie comes from a funny black guy. He doesn’t get killed, so kudos for that, but it’s 2018 and we’re still doing “the funny black guy?” There’s a secondary male lead who vanishes from the film like he’s been abducted by aliens.
“The Meg” is NOT a motion picture that grownups can appreciate as grownups. You do have to put your brain in neutral and stare at the screen like a drooling infant. Of course, by now we’re all so used to doing that it’s the default setting of most moviegoers and if you can do that, “The Meg” is kind of fun. Director Jon Turteltaub effectively generates some thrills early on by mimicking Spielberg’s approach of not showing us the monster and even when he puts the giant shark on display, he manages to keep it from ever getting boring. Li Bingbing is apparently a huge star in China and you can see why, even though she’s playing a role in “The Meg” that Hollywood would usually give to an actress half her age. Jason Statham and Rainn Wilson are Jason Statham and Rainn Wilson. They are what they are and you know if you like that or not.
It's like a shark smorgasbord with nothing but finger food...or is that fin food?
It’s frustrating to have to keep giving modern blockbusters this same backhanded compliment but while “The Meg” isn’t much good by any objective standard, it’s better than a lot of the dreck that washes up on theater shores today. It’s a little scary and a little funny with attractive actors and a fast enough pace to avoid ever being dull. “Jaws” still takes this Throwdown going away but the CGI imagery on display in “The Meg,” which is a good bit better than any other giant shark flick you may have seen, at least makes it understandable why someone would want to make and watch something other than “Jaws.” But why does everything else have to be so much worse? And why do we as paying customers accept it?
“The Meg” will probably wind up with the 13th biggest opening weekend of 2018 so far and could be a top 20 box office hit of the year in the U.S. and make even more internationally without being…you know…good. Yet you’ll hear more complaints about the Marvel super-hero movies because they’re repetitively good while rarely being great than you hear about the staggering number of big budget flicks that range from “meh” to flat out stinking on ice. Has Hollywood worn us down or are we truthfully at fault? Are we so stressed and stretched in our real lives that we no longer have the energy to exercise judgment in our entertainment? Is drooling at the screen the best we manage?
Note to self: Idea for a movie – Jennifer Lawrence and Dwayne Johnson jangling keys for two hours.
"Yeah, if you could just reach in there and floss that back tooth I can never reach."
Written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb.
Directed by Steven Spielberg.
Starring Roy Scheider, Robert Shaw, Richard Dreyfuss, Lorraine Gary, Murray Hamilton, Carl Gottlieb, Jeffrey Kramer, Susan Backlinie, Jonathan Filley, Ted Grossman, Chris Rebello, Jay Mello, Lee Fierro, Jeffrey Voorhees, and Craig Kingsbury.
The Meg (2018)
Written by Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber, and Eric Hoeber. I would bet money at least three other uncredited “script doctors” labored on this thing.
Directed by Jon Turbeltaub.
Starring Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis, Winston Chao, Shuya Sophia Cai, Ruby Rose, Page Kennedy, Robert Taylor, Olafur Darri Olafsson, Jessica McNamee, and Masi Oka.
"Why exactly was I in this movie?"