How giant shark movie The Meg, starring Li Bingbing and Jason Statham, became the highest grossing China-US co-production in history
- Since Jaws invented the summer blockbuster in 1975 shark movies have always been popular with the public, so The Meg’s premise was a winner from the beginning
- Lead actors Jason Statham and Li Bingbing may lack chemistry, but it succeeds by treating the Chinese characters with as much dignity as the American ones
In 2018 The Meg caught Hollywood commentators completely off guard. Jon Turteltaub’s giant shark movie became the highest-grossing Chinese-American co-production of all time, making US$530 million worldwide and beating the previous record holder, Kung Fu Panda 3 .
So how did a movie dubbed “the thinking fan’s Sharknado” triumph against the odds?
Based on a 1997 book by Steve Alten, and starring Jason Statham and Li Bingbing, The Meg pits the crew of an underwater research facility against a 23-metre megalodon, a creature previously thought to be extinct.
By almost any measure, the movie is terrible. The script is awful (sample line: “Meg versus man isn’t a fight, it’s a slaughter!”), the CGI indifferent, and Statham and Li lack even the most rudimentary romantic chemistry, with the former struggling to land his own accent, let alone a gigantic rampaging shark.
“We were being laughed at by a lot of people for making this movie,” said Turtletaub, as quoted by Variety. “Before it came out, the tracking was horrible. They were saying this is a huge mistake, Warner Brothers has blown it, China is done.”
Some critics were still laughing having seen the finished film – hence its 45 per cent Rotten Tomatoes score – not that audiences cared.
Since Jaws all but invented the summer blockbuster in 1975, the public’s appetite for shark movies has remained considerable, quality be damned.
Hence the popularity of the 1999 hit Deep Blue Sea, which pitted cartoony CG sharks against a wisecracking LL Cool J, or the Z-grade Sharknado series (sample title: Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!) which stretches a very thin joke across six unspeakable movies.
On that basis, The Meg is an easy sell, promising the simplicity of Snakes on a Plane (2006) or Cowboys vs Aliens (2011) – films people thought they wanted to see, until they had.
It’s also an easy watch. Glossy, pacy and played just straight enough to pass muster, it features simple names (DJ, Mac, Jaxx), broad-stroke characterisations, and lots of scientific concepts explained slowly as if to a child. Audiences hoping to turn up and turn their brains off would have no trouble finding the switch.
But it’s behind the scenes where it shows its smarts. Because the film was a co-production, Warner Bros received over 40 per cent of the Chinese box office takings instead of the usual 25 per cent, and it was allowed to play in Chinese cinemas for longer – US titles are normally limited to just three weeks.
Even with a bigger slice of the pie, co-productions have fallen flat before. The key mistake seems to be taking Chinese audiences for granted.
To make The Meg more internationally inclusive, producer Belle Avery lived in China for five years, moving to coastal Qingdao where the film is set to soak up the local atmosphere. “Getting the characters and cultural elements right was crucial,” she told The Hollywood Reporter.
How well the film achieves this is debatable, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction, treating the Chinese characters with as much dignity as the American ones.
An early scene sees billionaire bad guy Rainn Wilson attempting to greet Li’s character and her father (played by the Taiwanese actor Winston Chow) in Mandarin, but getting his words laughably muddled.
A few years ago, the joke would have been the other way round. Indeed, it speaks volumes about The Meg’s fear of offending anyone – except the critics – that a throwaway comment about shark’s fin soup feels controversial in the extreme.
As ever in the film industry, having created a golden goose, nobody wants to kill it. Fast forward three years and, if rumours are to be believed, there’s not only a sequel on the way, but a theme park too. So just when you thought it was safe to go back into the water …
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