A poster is a promise on which a movie has to deliver, and the posters for The Meg, the new Jason-Statham-versus-a-giant-prehistoric-shark movie, have been making some pretty big promises all year. Each new image has offered a variation on the same theme by putting the gaping maw of the film’s megalodon in compositions that show it dwarfing helpless human swimmers, helpless human rafters, and dogs (and a less helpless-looking Statham). The most effective of the bunch shows a scuba diver fleeing a great white that’s in turn pursued by a megalodon whose massive jaws make it look like a sardine by comparison. The suggestion is unmistakable: “You think you’ve seen crazy shark movies before? Wait until you see this!”
Yet, when it comes to crazy shark movies, The Meg faces considerable competition. I’m not talking about the tongue-in-cheek, made-for-TV Sharknado movies. I’m not even talking about Deep Blue Sea, which pits Samuel L. Jackson, LL Cool J, and a parrot against some superintelligent sharks. I’m talking about 1987’s Jaws: The Revenge, the fourth and to-date final entry in the Jaws series and one of the strangest sequels ever released in any franchise.
A short history: After the success of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 adaptation of Peter Benchley’s bestselling novel about a New England resort town named Amity Island menaced by a ferocious great white shark, Universal wanted a sequel. In 1978’s Jaws 2, Roy Scheider returned as Amity’s police chief Martin Brody to do battle with another great white. In the 1983 film, Jaws 3-D, Brody’s sons Michael and Sean have grown up, with Michael working for a SeaWorld-like park menaced by a shark.
But forget all that, because Jaws: The Revenge does. When the film opens, Martin is dead of a heart attack, Sean’s working for the Amity police, and Michael’s a marine biologist in the Bahamas. Though she still mourns her husband, Ellen Brody (Lorraine Gary, the film’s only returning principal cast member) has adjusted to life without him when Sean is killed while investigating a log that’s drifted into the harbor. The killer: yet another great white shark. The mourning Ellen travels to the Bahamas to be with Michael (Lance Guest), her daughter-in-law Carla (Karen Young), and her granddaughter Thea (Judith Barsi). But it doesn’t take long for her to suspect the shark has followed them thousands of miles in a few short days. Could it be seeking revenge? (Hint: Check the title.)
So which is the crazier film? Let’s break it down.
Adapted from Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, a 1997 novel by Steve Alten, The Meg has bounced around Hollywood for a couple of decades. At one point, Jan de Bont was going to direct it. At another, Guillermo Del Toro. In the end, the job fell to Jon Turteltaub, a journeyman whose filmography includes everything from While You Were Sleeping to the National Treasure films. By contrast, Jaws: The Revenge was a rush job, given the go-ahead by Universal head (and Gary’s husband) Sid Sheinberg in September 1986 for a July 1987 release. Joseph Sargent, best known for directing The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, took on the unenviable task of making a releasable blockbuster in a short stretch of time. It didn’t work. Everything about Jaws: The Revenge, from its borderline incoherent story to its chaotic action to its iffy effects to co-star Mario Van Peebles’ attempt at a Bahamian accent reveal it as a patchwork movie with little holding it together.
Winner: Jaws: The Revenge.
Jason Statham can throw a punch and wear a natty suit. He has a tough-looking face but can make a glower fade into a grin (and then back into a glower) with ease. He looks good holding a gun, doesn’t mind taking his shirt off and, as Spy proved, can be hilarious when called upon. There’s a reason he’s an in-demand action hero: He fits the part, but he can also wink at it when required. Michael Caine is one of the finest actors of his generation. He’s also always in demand, and he goes where he’s wanted, which is why his filmography is a mix of titles like The Man Who Would Be King and Interstellar and The Swarm, The Hand, and, well, Jaws: The Revenge, in which he plays Hoagie, a pilot who strikes up a flirtation with Ellen Brody and, eventually, fights a shark. “I have never seen it, but by all accounts it is terrible,” Caine has said of the film. “However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”
Winner: Tough call. Both Statham and Caine know they’re in silly movies, and both have fun with it. However, in one scene Statham is dragged by a motorboat trying to outrace the Meg. Also, Caine’s character is named Hoagie. Advantage: Statham. Winner: The Meg.
There’s a lot of time-filling canoodling in Jaws: The Revenge. Hoagie romances Ellen. Michael and Carla are tight. Van Peebles’ Jake has a warm relationship with his wife Louisa (Lynn Whitfield). In The Meg, Statham’s Jonas Taylor and co-star Li Bingbing’s Suyin Zhang embark on a romance so chaste it wouldn’t be out of place on the Hallmark Channel. Characters talk about them liking each other, but they rarely make eye contact, much less kiss. It’s one of the weirdest non-Megalodon elements of the movie.
Winner: Jaws: The Revenge, if only because the characters seem to live in a world in which sex actually happens.
Here’s where it gets tough. The effects in Jaws: The Revenge are, to put it kindly, not great. It’s almost as if shark-effect technology devolved in the 12 years between the original Jaws and this one. It sometimes seems as if the chaotic editing is just an attempt to cut around the phoniness of the shark. The Meg has much better effects … mostly. Sometimes the Meg looks impressive, as when it menacingly approaches the research station’s massive windows. Sometimes it just looks like janky CGI that wouldn’t look that out of place, I’m sorry to report, in a Sharknado installment.
Winner: The Meg. Though the quality varies wildly from shot to shot, it at least occasionally looks like the characters are fighting an actual giant shark.
Most of The Meg’s action takes place far from the shore until the giant shark gets wise and decides to head for the easy pickings of China’s Sanya Bay and a beach filled with swimmers, rafters, and at least one guy in a giant plastic gerbil ball–type contraption. (Things don’t go well for him.) The attack contains some of the film’s most striking images, especially an overhead shot of the Megalodon swimming beneath unsuspecting beachgoers, but the action’s more frenzied than exciting. Jaws: The Revenge, on the other hand, features a shark trying to pick a kid off a banana boat. (Remember, this is a shark focused on destroying one family, not just eating indiscriminately.)
Winner: The Meg, even if the scene doesn’t live up to its full potential.
This one’s pretty easy. Jaws: The Revenge was released in American theaters with an ending audiences found so unsatisfying that Universal shot a different ending before releasing it to Europe and used that for all subsequent releases of the film—and it’s still among the film’s worst scenes. (Good luck finding the original version, which is presumably in Sheinberg and Gary’s basement.) The Meg features Jason Statham stabbing a giant shark in the eye.
Winner: Figure it out.
Alten has followed Meg with six sequels (to date). Jaws: The Revenge, as was typical of the era, arrived accompanied by a novelization based on the screenplay and penned by an author who’d never seen the finished product. Written by Hank Searls, it is, by all accounts, even stranger than the movie. Where Sargent makes frequent hints of a psychic connection between Ellen and the shark, the novel offers a more convoluted explanation involving a Voodoo priest who’s using the shark to exact revenge on the Brody family. Which, to be fair, makes more sense than a shark choosing to seek revenge on its own, but is still pretty silly.
Winner: Alten’s Meg books have helped earn him a loyal following, so this should probably go to The Meg. But it’s hard to beat a novelization that suggests a more bizarre version of a movie’s story existing just below the surface of the movie itself. Let’s call it a draw.
The Meg: “Chomp On This”
Jaws: The Revenge: “This Time It’s Personal”
Winner: There’s a clear winner here, and it’s not The Meg. “This Time It’s Personal” even outdoes Jaws 2’s “Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…” It’s a phrase you can use, and probably have used, in everyday life without even knowing its source. That its source is referring to a shark with a grudge against a specific New England family whose patriarch once killed one of its own just makes it extra delightful.
Tough call, honestly. The Meg has a giant prehistoric shark and Jason Statham, and yet it’s still only fitfully entertaining. In bare description, it’s the crazier movie, but it’s also kind of a slog, never as scary or silly as it ought to be. Jaws: The Revenge, on the other hand, doesn’t work at all, but it’s a fascinating train wreck whose many low points are entertainingly awful. The psychic-shark-with-rage-issues probably gives it a slight lead. But ultimately this exercise suggests there’s an even weirder shark movie waiting to be made. Maybe one about a prehistoric shark who’s inherited a millennia-old grudge against the direction taken by evolution itself? Teaming Statham and Caine as heroes who, for some reason, are both telepathic? They’re both available and eager to work. Everyone needs a new house once in a while, after all.