After seeing The Meg last week, I wondered why such a mediocre film had been so popular for two weekends running. So I did a little research.
I started by watching the original shark movie again. I’d seen it a couple times, but not recently.
“Jaws” has a plot that holds together. It opens in a beach city whose economy relies on summer tourist traffic. A great white shark wanders into the area, develops a taste for swimmers and boaters and decides to stick around. While the body count rises, the mayor resists warning tourists for fear losing business. After inadequate efforts to catch and kill the shark, a serious attempt is launched in the action-filled third act, when the sheriff, a scientist and an old sea salt take off in a rickety boat to do battle with the piscine predator.
The shark is not seen for much of the movie. Its approach is signaled by a John Williams score with a thrumming two-note warning — duh-dah-duh-dah-duh-dah — that teaches viewers to dread what’s coming. This is a subtle but effective (and economical) bit that never would make it into a film today.
“The Meg” is different. It opens with a years-past, deadly event that is not understood and that preshadows the appearance of a much, much bigger and much, much scarier shark, albeit a completely fictional one and one that for some reason always pops up near a small research station with scientists and a designated action hero. (Really, the Pacific Ocean is quite a bit larger than the water around Amity Island, the setting for “Jaws.”) These devices help “The Meg” get to its killing business faster and to amp the action from there, but with plot contrivances that undermine the credibility of virtually every scene.
In 1975 “Jaws” broke new ground in at least three ways.
— It introduced sharks as dreaded predators, perhaps the first aquatic animals to gain that distinction since “Moby Dick.”
–It was a mainstream hit, not a B-movie, like previous horror films.
— It was the first summer blockbuster in an industry whose summer season traditionally had been its least profitable.
(The first Star Wars movie, two summers later, cemented the summer blockbuster trend and led, over time, to superhero movies that initially were summer releases and now have become year-round, big-selling favorites.)
There have been many shark shows since then, starting with three Jaws sequels of declining popularity.
Given this, my first thought was that the “The Meg” attracted dedicated fans who flock almost habitually to summertime shark movies, no matter their quality.
But then I did some more research. I think another factor is at work.
We’re All Cynics Now
Something has happened to shark movies over time.
Yes, there have been ones that that played the story straight. The most recent, 2016’s “The Shallows,” starred Blake Lively and got much better reviews than “The Meg.” (For one thing, it had a more believable story.) It was profitable, selling $119 million in tickets worldwide.
By contrast, “The Meg” has generated revenues of $370 million in just over three weeks.
What seems to have happened is that the straight shark film has, well, jumped the shark. The new genre is comedy/outlandish/horror shark movies.
Consider the variations.
In 2003, Dreamworks (the studio run by “Jaws” director Stephen Spielberg) released “Shark Tale,” a computer-generated piece featuring a vegetarian shark — a friendly shark, if you will.
Other film and television variations followed with the following titles:
Spring Break Shark Attack
2-Headed Shark Attack (and a 3-headed sequel)
Shark in Venice
And, of course, 2013 brought us “Sharknado,” which I assumed was a wacky one-off. But, as happens so often, I was wrong. This year, the ScyFy channel released “Sharknado 6.”
There is now a reliable audience for improbable shark films, including really cheesy ones that are modern examples of a phenomenon that used to be called “camp.” Audiences seem to watch because they enjoy being in on the jokes.
What else could be expected from an industry that in 2006 shelled out $33 million to make a film called “Snakes on a Plane?”