There’s a promise lurking under the water. A promise of the unknown, the unexpected, and the unimaginable hidden within the dark blue depths of the ocean. It’s often stated that we know less about the ocean floor than we do the surface of the moon, or Mars. In 2014, Jon Copley of Scientific American said that less than 0.05 percent of the ocean’s floor has been mapped to a useful level of detail. While so much of our scientific media and popular culture posits that space in the final frontier, a frontier equally strange and populated with undiscovered life exists right here on our own planet. It’s an exciting notion, but also a terrifying one, which has allowed for the emergence and popularity of the aquatic horror subgenre.
While many B movies of the '50s and '60s focused on giant monsters emerging from the sea, usually a result of nuclear tests, it was Steven Spielberg who truly brought the terror of the ocean to life on screen. With Jaws (1975), Spielberg adapted Peter Benchley’s novel of the same name and created a cinematic scenario that not only formed the basis of blockbusters movies but also made the concept of a sea monster entirely plausible. This weekend’s release, The Meg, finds director John Turteltaub not only contending with the massive legacy of Jaws, through which all shark movies will forever be compared to, but also facing the challenge of creating a notable entry in a modest subgenre that still has yet to fully take advantage of the ocean since 1975.
The Meg alternates between rugged action-horror and sleek, family-friendly sea exploration, with its lead, Jason Statham, admirably navigating tones while maintaining his trademark gruffness. Compared to the summer shark movies of the two previous years 47 Meters Down (2017) and The Shallows (2016), The Meg is far less serious offering, but also a more predictable one. The Meg doesn’t reach Sharknado (2013) levels of self-parody, but it’s also not a film that aims to be much more than what the trailers showcased — Statham and Li Bingbing facing off against a massive prehistoric shark loosed from hidden depths of the Mariana Trench. With the aid of an eclectic group of supporting characters comprised of Rainn Wilson, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, and Ruby Rose, they attempt to destroy the shark before it can wreak havoc on beaches. In a reversal of Jaws, The Meg’s beach action doesn’t come until the third act, which makes the threat of a giant shark less severe than it should be. The film, which was originally set to be directed by Eli Roth, who dropped out due to disagreements with Warner Bros. over the film’s rating, is sorely lacking the carnage that a director like Roth could have provided. The result is a film that’s fun, but tame to the point where it can’t outswim where the genre has been.
Jaws spawned three sequels, each worse than the last – although Jaws 2 (1978) is actually a solid if unnecessary follow-up. The subgenre seemed exhausted barely after it has begun, and while cheaply made cult-classics like Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978) and Lamberto Bava’s Devil Fish (1984) provided some chum for the rapidly receding waters, killer fish had mostly lost their bite. This led to the most interesting phase in the aquatic horror subgenre – monstrosities anatomically different from anything audiences could find in an aquarium. Films like DeepStar Six (1989) and Leviathan (1989) promised new oceanic horrors, transforming the subgenre into one just as influenced by Alien (1979) as it was by Jaws. The quality of these films is debatable, though Leviathan is one of the stronger Alien knockoffs by way of also borrowing from The Thing (1982). But they at least offered some new ground in terms of the creatures lurking beneath the waves.
Shark movies peaked early with Jaws, but these underwater creature features could allow our fears of the ocean to evolve and become as varied as our space exploration movies. The only problem with this genre evolution was the box office failure of these films, along with the tepid response to James Cameron’s sci-fi centric The Abyss (1989). After the almost unwatchable Jaws: The Revenge found itself beached in 1987, the trifecta of underwater disappointments that were Deepstar Six, Leviathan, and The Abyss killed enthusiasm for sea creatures. It was finally safe to go in the water again.
The '90s saw the release of two films of the aquatic horror subgenre that should have been franchise launchers. Prior to his success with The Mummy (1999), Stephen Sommer’s tentacle creature feature Deep Rising (1998) captured the feeling of old-school pulp adventures while adding in contemporary horror gore. The film was major box office disappointment, opening at number eight and grossing a total $11.2 million on a $45 million budget. 1999 saw the release of Deep Blue Sea, which a number of critics regarded as the only decent shark movie since Jaws 2. It’s this film, which deals with genetically engineered sharks meant to cure Alzheimer’s, that The Meg feels closest to tonally. It’s a pre-Syfy dumb shark movie that’s modest success should have led to a much earlier resurgence in shark movies, especially given LL Cool J’s end credits track “Deepest Bluest." Seriously, go listen to it, folks. Despite Deep Rising and Deep Blue Sea being worthwhile entries in the aquatic shark canon, neither of them managed to capture the fear and tension that Spielberg created with Jaws. These movies aimed too big, seeking to amp the blockbuster stakes Spielberg had created, but giving audiences little cause to hesitate before wading out into the ocean.
It’s on smaller budgets where contemporary shark movies have thrived, relying on emotional connections and tensions rather than special effects. Just as mainstream horror shifted in the 2000s, becoming a little less dependent on franchises and more reliant on well-crafted standalone films from young filmmakers, so did shark movies. Open Water (2003) is the only film since Jaws to actually make sharks scary again. Based on a true story of two vacationers who get left behind on a scuba diving trip, filmmaker Chris Kentis takes an understated route, allowing the fear to stem from what we don’t see, dehydration, vast emptiness, and shadows moving in the water. The similarly themed The Reef (2010) also took a grounded approach to aquatic horror, while that same year Piranha 3D and Shark Night 3D aimed for gory and goofy thrills that played up the self-awareness that they could never compete with Jaws. The Meg leans into this kind of self-awareness but never goes all in, still clinging to its shallow exploration of humanity’s nature to destroy what it discovers at the cost of science, despite the fact that most audiences just want to see a giant shark devour people.
With a budget of $150 million, the most expensive aquatic horror movie ever made, The Meg is torn between its desire to be a summer event film with shades of Amblin, or a down and dirty monster movie. It’s entertaining and enjoyable but constantly feels like it should be delivering more than what it does, some surprise beyond a giant shark. The familiarity of The Meg is perhaps a sign that sharks aren’t meant to carry blockbuster movies anymore. Maybe the subgenre has moved beyond that with these animals caught up in the over-exposure of Shark Week and Sharknados. 47 Meters Down proved to be immensely effective with a budget of $5.5 million, and went on to become one of the most successful independent films. It’s sequel, 47 Meters Down: The Next Chapter, set for release next summer, will make 47 Meters Down the first wide theatrical shark franchise release since Jaws concluded in 1987. Perhaps what we fear about sharks is best presented in movies that don’t feel much different from our reality, that aren’t sleek and action-packed movie star vehicles, but small and intimate experiences. What we fear about the water is so much bigger than sharks, even sharks as big as the megaladon.
The Meg has all the makings of a film set to launch and enjoyable franchise, but in order to do so it should go beyond sharks. That territory has already been carved out for a fraction of the cost. For a film that begins with a deeper layer of the Mariana Trench being broken open, there’s the promise of creatures much stranger and more terrifying than prehistoric sharks. While the ocean creature features before the 21st century failed to catch on, it’s time to try again – especially if James Wan’s Aquaman delivers. The Meg is a solid entry, but for aquatic horror to play on a blockbuster level going forward it should take us to new frontiers, make good on the promise of the water. After 44 years of audiences being drawn to these movies, it’s time to break the surface.