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[This story contains spoilers for The Meg]
Misleading marketing campaigns can be the bane of a film’s existence, or at least can hamper its long-term survival at the box office. Within the last few years, the easy way to gauge how frustrating marketing can be for some films is to look at their Cinemascores from audiences. Recent indie horror films like It Comes at Night and Hereditary got low enough scores that suggested audiences expected one thing based on the ads, and were presented with something entirely different. But it’s rare for the marketing to sell you a movie in a way that makes you think the PR team understood that the movie should be better than the filmmakers did. And yet here we are, with The Meg.
This new shark-attack thriller seems like it has cheesiness built in at its very core. “Meg,” in this case, is short for megalodon, which is a fancy one-word version of “ginormously large shark.” The fairly ubiquitous ads for The Meg lean into the campy possibilities, with taglines like “Pleased to Eat You” and TV spots set to Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea.” Releasing the movie in mid-August, too, suggests that The Meg has been positioned as the dog-days-of-summer release that might be a sleeper hit buoyed by people’s love of sharks. If the ads don’t seem to suggest a theatrical version of Sharknado, then they’re dredging up fond memories of a previous Warner Bros. film, Deep Blue Sea.
Yet the final product has a slow, plodding first half with only a hint of fun in the finale. So what happened? The Meg focuses on deep-sea diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), who’s coerced into helping save three fellow divers from below the depths of the Marianas Trench. Though Jonas seems happy to be living in Thailand as a drunk, he’s brought back into the fold because one of the divers is his ex-wife Lori. Though Lori and her fellow divers don’t realize it, by descending below the Marianas Trench — previously thought to be impossible — they’ve brought themselves face-to-face with the presumed-extinct Meg. Jonas is able to pull off a daring rescue mission, but in so doing, he inadvertently opens an aquatic door through which the Meg can sail through to the surface and wreak havoc.
Part of the problem with The Meg is inherent in that setup, which (a) feels like it’s enough to merit its own full-length script and (b) takes up a good 40 minutes of the film. Though the Meg causes some external damage to Lori’s deep-sea vehicle, the massive shark’s immense power is only hinted at in this section. It’s only after the ostensible reason for Jonas to be involved on a high-tech underwater marine-biology station is resolved that the shark comes into play. Of course, it’s possible that director Jon Turteltaub and the three credited screenwriters were inspired by Steven Spielberg’s iconic Jaws, choosing to hold off on showing the shark until the latest possible moment.
The difference there comes down to marketing. Yes, both The Meg and Jaws feature killer sharks, but The Meg has an ad campaign that is going out of its way to remind everyone of how murderous this shark is. Jaws is a masterpiece because of its focus on the human characters. But The Meg’s human characters are one-dimensional to the core, so the attacks needed to be better. Worse, the amount of bloodthirsty attacks promised in the ads are all centered on one scene in the third act, as the Meg threatens the beachfront of Sanya Bay near Shanghai. And to dub the sequence an “attack” would be something of an overstatement.
There are, again, threats of an attack; for example, we see a chubby little boy make his way to the ocean in an inner tube to join the throngs of swimmers before the shark swims through the bay. (To be clear: the film helpfully makes it obvious that the boy is chubby because he’s unable to part with a popsicle, even after the shark nearly bites off his legs. You need to have priorities.) The shark also threatens an oceanside wedding party, including the bride’s dog, who goes for an impromptu swim. But the shark just threatens: both the dog and the boy survive, as do many other people. It’s a pretty bloodless affair, far from what you’d expect in a movie about a 90-foot shark.
Movie marketing is designed to be misleading, to highlight action sequences in a 150-second stretch that may only take up a few minutes of a two-hour film. A good marketing campaign doesn’t guarantee a good movie; sometimes, bad marketing happens to good movies, as most Pixar films are wonderful despite having genuinely tone-deaf or dull ad campaigns. The Meg isn’t an uninspired film because it had a marketing campaign that promised something the film wasn’t going to deliver. The problem is that the marketing campaign for The Meg promised a much better, goofier film than the one we got. At least the PR team knew what the movie should have been.
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