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?
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 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.
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.
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.