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‘The Meg’ and Why August Is Where Bad Summer Movies Go to Die

Plus some other random thoughts about the new Jason Statham action film

Since 2002, when Spider-Man premiered on May 3, the official start of summer movie season has been the first weekend in May. (Though, Avengers: Infinity War opening on April 27 suggests that that arbitrary date may start moving up.) And technically, summer movie season ends on Labor Day weekend — which is when the studios dump their worst films, letting them die in empty multiplexes as audiences focus on school, jobs and football. But even August is, by and large, a wasteland at the movies. There are still hits this month, but they tend to be commercial Hail Marys or counterprogramming. So if an action film opens in August, watch out: That’s a sign the studio knows it’s awful.

All of which brings us to The Meg, which might be the August-iest August movie ever. Here’s a film designed to help you ride out the lazy last few weeks of summer before you have to say goodbye to warmer weather and vacation time. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a hangover: You had too much fun last night/this summer, and now you’ve woken up to the reality that all that fun has only led to overindulgence and regret. The Meg plays like a blockbuster, except it’s shoddily constructed and generally half-assed. It’s a movie made by people who seem like they barely got off the couch — and it’s meant for people who would be most comfortable watching it on theirs.

Truth be told, I have a weird affinity for these kinds of bad, late-summer blockbusters. Yes, they’re boring and lame, but there’s also something melancholic about their very existence. They didn’t mean to be this bad — I’m sure they sorta tried to be good — but sometimes the best intentions don’t work out. Movies like The Meg tap into my overall feelings about August, a month that’s always made me a little sad. When I was in school, August meant, oh no, summer was basically over. How had I let vacation go by so quickly? What had I been doing with all my free time?!? I was quickly swept up in a wave of panic, remorse and self-loathing, and each new day was simply a day closer to the dark inevitability of school.

That sense of precious time slipping away is mirrored in my adult life as a film critic. Each August, I watch mediocre pseudo-blockbusters, each of them unaware that they’ve been released in August, and therefore, cursed to be bad. Like those movies, I’m just playing out the string, waiting for fall to come — and with it, awards season and its aspirations to deliver serious, high-quality films with a capital F. These August stinkers reside in that purgatory between Summer Spectacle and Oscar Prestige — they’re misfit toys with nowhere to go.

Of course, there have been massive August hits in recent years: Straight Outta Compton, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Suicide Squad and The Help. But each of them was a bit of a gamble. (With Guardians and Suicide Squad, those were comic-book films without the built-in cachet of an Iron Man or Man of Steel.) In other words, they’re the exceptions. Normally, you get forgettable product like The Hitman’s Bodyguard or The Dark Tower or that atrocious Ben-Hur remake. These are movies that, later when they pop up on cable, you’ll think, Oh, right, I think I saw an ad for that a few months ago. Did that ever get released?

The Meg, which has been in development for more than 20 years, is a mediocre producer’s idea of a summer event movie. It features a kinda-sorta bankable star (Jason Statham) in a kinda-sorta exciting scenario (big shark likes to eat everything) that kinda-sorta conjures up memories of other popular things (Jaws … and Sharknado). Everything about The Meg is just a bit off. The effects are sorta cool, but not really. The attack sequences are vaguely fun, but not entirely. The whole movie plays like a woozy recollection of what a real blockbuster is like.

I have colleagues who describe The Meg as a good turn-off-your-brain film. It requires nothing from the audience — it’s that last beer before you bid farewell to everybody at the barbecue and head home for the night. Audiences seem to agree with them: The Meg was a gigantic hit this weekend, far outperforming its meager initial commercial projections. There are a couple more potentially promising films opening this month: Crazy Rich Asians looks like it will be a smash, and fingers crossed that The Happytime Murders is as irreverent as it appears to be. Either way, hold on to those last scraps of summer movie season, folks. Pretty soon, the lifeguards are coming to kick everybody out of the pool.

Here are a few other takeaways from The Meg. (Warning: There will be spoilers.)

#1. Everybody’s mad the movie isn’t bloodier — especially the people who made it.

The Meg is rated PG-13, which means it doesn’t feature the sort of over-the-top, gruesome death scenes one might expect (or hope) to see in a film about a Megalodon devouring everything in the Pacific Ocean. But no one is more disappointed than the movie’s director and star.

Jon Turteltaub, who last made the geriatric comedy Last Vegas, told Bloody Disgusting last week that he was sorry The Meg wasn’t more, well, bloody and disgusting. “[T]he number of really horrifying, disgusting and bloody deaths we had lined up that we didn’t get to do is tragic,” he said. “There was some really good shit that didn’t survive to the final cut.” Turteltaub sounds like he would have loved to have delivered a hard-R shark thriller, but during post-production the studio pushed him to tamp down the violence in order to appeal to a wider, younger audience.

“We shot or even did a lot of visual effects for [gory scenes],” the director said. “We just realized there’s no way we’re keeping this PG-13 if we show this. It’s too fun a movie to not let people who don’t like blood and people who are under, say, 14 years old into the theater. I was very hesitant to cut out a lot of blood and gore. I wouldn’t have if I thought it was wrecking the story, but it wasn’t. It still looked okay.”

This was all news to Statham, apparently, who complained to Collider that The Meg didn’t turn out to be the movie he thought it would be when he read the script. “It’s a little bit more directed to a different taste of what my own is in terms of I like more gory adult stuff,” says the actor. He later added, “I might have made a film that not many people wanted to see. … [Y]ou go, ‘Where’s the fucking blood?’ It’s like, ‘There’s a shark.’”

But having a human-eating shark doesn’t guarantee your movie will end up going for an R rating. While Deep Blue Sea got an R, recent shark-centric films such as The Shallows, 47 Meters Down and Shark Night all got PG-13s. (Piranha 3D and Piranha 3DD both went full R.) But because The Meg reportedly cost around $150 million to make, Warner Bros. had no choice but to trim out the gore to get a PG-13 — an R rating would have kept a sizable portion of the potential audience from seeing The Meg.

Will you miss the gorier stuff that Turteltaub cut out? I know I did. There’s a tantalizing scene near the end of The Meg where the shark swims through a heavily populated beach filled with blissfully unaware vacationers enjoying the water. It’s a floating feast, and the damn shark basically just swims by and causes very little carnage. This isn’t what anyone going to The Meg wants. We want the shark to eat lots of people in graphic ways. We want body parts flying in every direction. The Meg isn’t aspiring to be art — you might as well give us what we came to see. But now that the film had such a great opening weekend, I wouldn’t be shocked if Warner Bros. puts out an unrated edition when the film comes to Blu-ray. After all, we have to have our bloodlust quenched in some way.

#2. Here’s a good indie movie about a shark attack.

While suffering through The Meg, I started trying to recall any good movies involving killer sharks. Jaws is an obvious choice, but then I remembered 2004’s Open Water, a low-budget indie that transformed a pretty clever gimmick into a suspenseful, surprisingly moving relationship drama.

Loosely based on a real-life tragedy, Open Water tells the story of a long-term couple, Daniel (Daniel Travis) and Susan (Blanchard Ryan), who are having problems communicating in their relationship. Like a lot of couples in that situation, they hope that a vacation will get them out of their rut, departing for an island getaway that includes scuba diving. Long story short, something goes wrong, and they’re left behind by their tour group, suddenly faced with the realization that they’re trapped in open water surrounded by hungry sharks.

Writer-director Chris Kentis is a certified scuba diver and while working on the script researched why sharks attack people. The reasons weren’t what he expected: “Even the sharks considered dangerous to humans usually only bite out of mistaken identity,” he told Entertainment Weekly at the time. “But as dehydration and exhaustion set in and people’s heart rates change, they start resembling a primary food source for sharks: wounded animals. So it’s only a matter of time before they do close in.”

That’s where Open Water’s gimmick comes in: Kentis put his two actors in open water surrounded by actual sharks. As a result, the film has a realism that can’t be faked — even if you know that the actors made it out alive, the sight of real sharks zooming around in the background and foreground of shots infuses every scene with palpable terror. (Plus, you completely buy that Daniel and Susan are freaked out as they try to stay alive.)

But Open Water also works as a metaphor for relationships. When we first meet this couple, they seem like self-absorbed twits, too obsessed with their cellphones and jobs to connect with one another. Their ordeal, however, forces them out of their bubble: Their lives are in danger, but having to work together puts them back in touch with why they fell in love in the first place.

Admittedly, that sounds corny, which is why it helps that you’re terrified throughout most of Open Water as the sharks draw closer and closer. And the movie gets even scarier when you don’t see a shark. You know they’re all around Daniel and Susan: Are they getting ready to strike? As a parable for all the unseen horrors every couple has to face, Open Water is a killer.

#3. What’s the best way to defeat a Megalodon?

Going to the restroom after The Meg, I overheard two dudes talking about the movie.

“Man,” one of them said to the other, “they should have just called Aquaman.”

Good point, bro. Good point.