So here's the thing: The Meg is actually able to concoct a reason for Jason Statham to get into hand-to-hand combat with a 75-foot shark. That is, in a sense, the whole of what the film needs to do, and I unhesitatingly admire it for this, and even love it for this, even though I'm plagued by some indistinct feeling that I didn't have nearly as much fun as "Jason Statham gets into hand-to-hand combat with a 75-foot shark" implies. Partially, this is true, because he is not doing this non-stop throughout the film's 113-minute running time. Although, to its credit, The Meg has quite a substantial quantity of shark-related action. The film cost substantially too much money - between its Chinese and American financiers, the budget was somewhere up around $150 million or more, in a film whose narrative is frankly indistinguishable from so many junkshop thrillers with price tags less than one-tenth of that much (at the high end!) - but it all shows up onscreen.

The titular shark gets a pretty substantial amount of screentime, in fact, in all sorts of situations: broad daylight, cloudless nights at sea, deep water, shallow water, murky water, hidden by particles, in full sight. And through all of it, the CGI looks pretty damn good, at times great. The shark has weight, texture, presence. If the solitary thing you want of The Meg is that it provides a lot of giant shark spectacle, it happily provides this. If you want anything else of The Meg, that's your problem.

Or, it also kind of is the film's problem. Because there is other stuff, and it's not really very interesting. The film's plot is boilerplate, straight down the line: Jonas Taylor (Statham) used to be the best in the world at what he did, until a tragedy drove him to the bottle. And what he did was emergency rescues at extreme depths under the sea, the kind of niche career that obviously not that many people are doing it at all, let alone doing it well. So five years later, even the boozy Jonas is the self-evident first choice when a crisis erupts on Mana One, an experimental underwater research station financed by colorful billionaire Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) and run by Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao). Basically, Zhang's theory that the apparent deepest point in the whole world, the bottom of the Mariana Trench, is actually a cloud of hydrogen sulfide held in place by an unusual temperature differential. He turns out to be quite correct, but nobody has a chance to be excited by this amazing discovery after the submarine that has just made history crashes into something, and ends up all the way down at the bottom of the bottom of the trench.

Thus, over the objections of Dr. Heller (Robert Taylor), the man who declared Jonas to be unstable all those years ago, for claiming some huge animal was responsible for the tragedy, Zhang heads to Thailand with Mac (Cliff Curtis), an old friend of Jonas's, to convince him to return to the depths to save the submarine, including his ex-wife Lori (Jessica McNamee). And this Jonas does, rather quickly into the movie, actually, and with very limited difficulty, despite the fact that he also has to rescue Zhang's daughter Suyin (Li Bingbing), who took another sub into the trench and also hit something. We actually never do learn what specific something has been causing the trouble: it might be the giant squid that almost destroys Suyin's sub. It also might be the 75-foot Carcharocles megalodon that rips the squid apart, and follows our heroes up to the surface after the rescue attempt briefly rips a plume of hot water that creates a path through the frigid water at the bottom of the trench.

And thereon, of course, hangs the movie: not just the story of how the hell they're going to deal with the megalodon, but also the story of Jonas and Suyin's awkward flirtation, egged on by her precocious daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai), or the story of how Morris, being a rich capitalist in a giant shark movie, is a dirty snake who's going to screw everybody over ASAP, or how Zhang deals with seeing his lifelong dream of the Mana One collapse in the teeth of a shark thought to be extinct for two million years. Not to mention the colorful behavior of the side characters, those I've named and also scientists Jaxx (Ruby Rose) and DJ (Page Kennedy) and "The Wall" (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), all with their own different, and not very germane specialties. There's not really a lot of time spent with these people, all things considered; but the time is not enjoyable. Through no real fault of the actors, all of whom are perfect fine at reciting the lines they've been given in variously colorful  registers (Curtis is, I'd say, the only person who in any way rises above the material, and I include Statham in this estimation), the characters are simply not people at all: they're just flat collections of behaviors, totally stripped of personality. This is hardly a unique sin within the annals of creature features, a genre that has for decades been content to let a sufficiently good monster make up for some utterly disposable victims (though The Meg doesn't even really have much in the way of a body count, despite all that expendable meat). But the cast should at least be distinctive, and if not for the convenient fact that the main characters are all different combinations of gender and nationality, I'm not absolutely sure that I'd have been able to keep any of them apart. They're just not much fun to spend time with when they're not in the exact instant of being chased by a huge prehistoric shark.

When they are, though, The Meg manages to at least function as a fun popcorn movie. It's not, I would say, up to the level of 2018's other summer monster movie, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, but it moves fast enough, and the parts that are meant to be funny usually are, the parts that are meant to be suspenseful usually are, and the shark attacks that are meant to be "surprising"-but-you-saw-it-coming-a-mile-away are sufficiently gratifying. Director Jon Turteltaub is no genius, but at least with National Treasure and National Treasure: Book of Secrets a decade ago, he demonstrated that he knew how to make a dimwitted adventure movie go by with good-natured matinee energy. He's not quite as good at making the stupid parts of The Meg feel less stupid: in the final act, when the megalodon heads to the nearest beach and the film begins ripping off Jaws with the least attempt to disguise what it's doing, it does feel like the film drops in momentum by a fairly huge amount. It feels like a different, worse film, frankly. Still, even if the film trips over the last quarter of its 113-minute running time, it's mostly satisfying at the thing it tries to do. The thing it tries to do is not very ambitious, to be sure; but it serves its place in the movie ecosystem. It's exactly the film it looks like, and for a late-summer genre picture, that's about the right thing to hope for.