Courtesy: Warner Bros.


That Shark in 'The Meg' Is the Least of Our Concerns

Man vs. nature is supposed to be one of the classic plot conflicts. That's the one you learn about in English class when you read the Jack London story about the doofus who dies because he doesn't know how to build a fire. These days, though, the doofus would have had a lighter, and, more importantly, the Yukon wouldn't freeze him to death because we've been pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for a hundred years, and the ice caps have broken out in flop sweat. Man's beaten nature, and rather than a happy ending, the result is a slow, stupid apocalypse. And why would you want to watch a slow, stupid apocalypse on-screen when you can live through it instead?

Perhaps that's why so many man vs. nature films on-screen are openly nostalgic for an earlier, simpler, more primeval time. The Jurassic Park movies reach back into prehistory for their toothy antagonists—and so does the new action/horror film The Meg. In the film—which bit off a huge opening sum at the box office this weekend—a team of scientists descends to hitherto unexplored ocean depths, where they inadvertently disturb a megalodon, a giant, supposedly extinct, 60-plus-foot-long shark. Predictable carnage ensues.

The fact that the carnage is predictable isn't a bug; it's a feature. The Meg is man vs. nature as comfort food. London's To Build a Fire is a bleak warning about the deadly implacability of the elements. In contrast, director Jon Turteltaub's atavistic shark film is about how man and nature slip into their old antagonism like grandpa donning his favorite old sweater. Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) is the bristly, gruff hero with a tragic backstory and a heart of schmaltz. Suyin Zhang (Li Bingbing) is the beautiful, spunky scientist who fights by his side. Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cal) is her adorably precocious 8-year-old daughter. Plus, there's a callous, untrustworthy billionaire; an earnest patriarch; a black guy providing comic relief. You know the drill.
The shark, too, knows how to play its role. It reacts with improbable aggression to a range of stimuli, but can be instantly and easily distracted when the plot calls for it to be instantly and easily distracted. And of course, there are lots of shark's-eye-view underwater shots of human legs flailing. The movie doesn't actually play the Jaws theme, but it might as well.

The result is a suspense film where every character arc and every oh-the-shark-isn't-dead-after-all plot twist approaches with the subtlety of a man-sized shark fin. When I watched the film at a preview screening, the audience was convulsed with giggles rather than with fear. Man, in the film, does what man does; nature does what nature does. It's fun; it's reliable. Everything is in its place, as it has been since the dawn of time.

There are a couple of uncomfortable reminders that the natural world right now isn't quite so satisfyingly in order, though. On one of its destructive rampages, the meg destroys several fishing boats. Amid the wreckage, our heroes find illegally harvested sharks floating on the surface, their fins cut off by poachers. It's a brief but unsettling acknowledgement that sharks are much less of a threat to people than people are to sharks. When man goes up against fish, it's a slaughter—and not of man.
More, the movie plot acknowledges, almost offhand, that to the extent nature does slaughter man, it tends to be man's fault. The meg lives deep in an underwater trench, separated from the rest of the ocean by a thin layer of supercooled water. When the protagonists investigate the trench, they accidentally disturb a thermal vent, which raises the temperature of the boundary layer of water, allowing the meg to escape. By heating the environment, humans change the balance of nature and put themselves at risk. Where have we heard that before?

The Sharknado series, heading into its sixth and supposedly final installment, embraces the shark/global-warming metaphor to humorous effect. Shark tornadoes are ridiculous. But then, destroying the planet you're living on is a fairly silly thing to do as well. Once human beings have turned the entire planet into a garbage dump for their waste products, man vs. nature becomes less a grim Darwinian challenge, and more an absurdist joke. We've killed all the sharks, and now they're swooping through the air on a limited special-effects budget to take revenge. Sure, why not? The joke is that we are all, in fact—human and shark alike—going to die. Ha ha.
The truth, unfortunately, is that the floofy dog is not going to be OK.
As a film released in 2018, The Meg can't help but be aware that this joke exists. "We discover, and then we destroy," one character declares with furrowed brow. But then the plot swims off, eager to direct your attention elsewhere. As in many of the Jurassic Park films, the conclusion of the movie involves the natural world teaming up with the heroes to put down the aberration. Mother Nature and all her creatures are on our side, rooting for our victory. People may crack open those thermal vents and release a monstrous doom, but the environmental equilibrium will restore itself. You know going into The Meg that the giant shark will be defeated, and no really essential characters will die. We'll all be OK. Yes, even that cute, floofy dog who got dumped overboard by accident is there at the end.

The truth, unfortunately, is that the floofy dog is not going to be OK. Warming water is going to unleash something on us that's a lot more dangerous than a prehistoric shark or two. Nor is nature going to help us put it back in its trench. Jason Statham can gird his yummy muscles, flex his stubbly chin and pretend he's in a Jack London story. But no matter how deep you dive, you don't get to fight yesterday's monsters. The overheated future is rising out of the deep, shapeless and indifferent. We're already in its maw.

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