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The Meg is on the loose again—but are shark movies even scary anymore?

Sure, the ocean is frightening and sharks are frightening, but movies about sharks just don't have the bite they used to

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Meg 2: The Trench
Meg 2: The Trench
Photo: Warner Bros.

In the nearly 50 years since Steven Spielberg’s Jaws first made everyone scared to go swimming, we’ve had to deal with a lot of things scarier than sharks. Just recently we had that whole global pandemic, an insurrection partially thwarted only by the incompetence of the conspirators, and that terrifying video of the cop flying way too fast down a slide. Plus, everyone knows you can bop a shark on the nose and get it to back off, and we have clear evidence that there are easier ways to die in the ocean than getting eaten by a shark.

So are shark movies still scary? Jon Turteltaub’s first The Meg tried to make the case that they are, specifically by making the shark really big, but the slick sci-fi sheen of that movie kept it from feeling as real as Jaws did in the ’70s. And as great as the marketing was, with the main poster doing a riff on the iconic Jaws one but with an impossibly large shark about to swallow an unsuspecting swimmer, it didn’t do the movie any favors since the actual shark didn’t seem that big. Maybe it was because the whole thing was CG, unlike Bruce in Jaws, but the advertising promised a shark bigger than you could imagine, a shark that could swallow all of Amity Island in one mighty chomp, a shark so big that it couldn’t be defeated by a nerd, a beach cop, and a grizzled fisherman. No, the only person who could defeat this shark was Jason freakin’ Statham.


That’s not to say the shark in The Meg was small. It was apparently somewhere between 60 and 80 feet long, which is quite a bit longer than scientists think real megalodons ever got and much longer than the average great white shark. Now Meg 2: The Trench is ratcheting everything up with more Megs, bigger Megs, and octopus monsters, but it still doesn’t seem all that scary. If you were scooting along in a paddleboat and a Meg came along, it certainly would be scary, but also… what are you going to do? It’s just going to swallow you no matter what.


Perhaps, then, the secret isn’t making the shark bigger at all. In Jaws, when Quint has his monologue about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, the detail he notes that’s so scary about the sharks that surrounded him and the rest of the crew wasn’t that they were big or powerful, it was their lifeless black eyes, “like a doll’s eyes.” Sharks aren’t scary because they’re monsters, they’re scary because they’re heartless killing machines—at least in movies, where it’s okay to make sweeping generalizations like that about an animal.

And there have been shark movies since Jaws that understand that, like 47 Meters Down and The Shallows, and maybe even Deep Blue Sea even though its gimmick was that the sharks were super-intelligent in addition to being heartless killing machines. The thing that makes these movies scary, at least in theory, is that they capture the fact that the ocean is an unknowable and inhospitable place for humans already, but then you have to contend with the ever-present threat of a creature that just wants to kill and eat you simply for being there. You can’t escape, you can’t win, all you can do is hope to survive.

Jaws (1975) - The Indianapolis Speech Scene (7/10) | Movieclips

The Meg and Meg 2 aren’t really contending with that specific fear. They’re more about the realization that things that keep you safe—big glass structures underwater, boats, being on land—aren’t going to protect you from something as Big and Evil as a Meg. But Megs aren’t real, at least not like the ones in the movies, and, again, recent events have made it clear that you don’t need a shark attack to render a man-made thing in the ocean unsafe.


If there is a Meg 3, maybe the answer to making it scarier isn’t to go bigger, but to go weirder. What about an invisible shark? You’re going for a swim in the ocean and you can’t even see the fin coming toward you, you just get your leg bit off and that’s it. How does Jason Statham use extreme sports to fight a shark he cannot see?

Or, at the risk of invalidating this entire argument, what if the shark is … even bigger? What if The Meg finally made good on its advertising and introduced a shark that instilled proper cosmic terror. A shark so big that it changes everything you think you know about the world. These Meg movies are all about going down to the deepest, darkest part of the ocean and accidentally letting things loose, but what if there’s a layer even below that with a shark that could eat a cruise ship whole? A shark that sees the little humans swimming into its personal space as insignificant, an alpha predator that smashes up the icecaps to flood the world so he can bite the Empire State Building. Less of a shark and more of a Godzilla.

But at that point you’re making a kaiju movie and not a shark movie. Jaws really did kind of create the mold and then break the mold so nobody could use it or improve on it. Sharks are still scary, and the ocean itself is probably scarier than ever (shoutout to orcas and the rising temperatures caused by climate change), but the days of watching a shark movie and being scared to go in the water because of it have come and gone. At least until the sharks get bigger, turn invisible, or start putting humans into amateur submarines.