There’s a reason why films like The Meg release in the summer. Ask the average moviegoer to define a “summer blockbuster,” and they’d likely respond with some variation of “big, dumb, CGI fun.” The Meg fits that definition like a yacht fits square in the maw of a hungry super-shark—The Meg is essentially Jaws on steroids.
But The Meg is only the latest studio tentpole with an elevator pitch that goes something like, “that movie you like but bigger.” Riffing on Die Hard, Skyscraper hyperbolizes its eponymous, digitally rendered tower so that it dwarfs every other modern high-rise, and even Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Likewise, last year’s Kong: Skull Island features the largest iteration of the titular ape seen thus far. Star Wars: The Force Awakens adopts a similar approach, emphasizing that Starkiller Base is several times larger than the Death Stars of movies past. To enumerate every such film would be to super-size the heft of this article—like a bad summer blockbuster.
Why do so many movies exist on the concept that “bigger is better?” An academic paper from Greg Tuck—a senior lecturer in Film Studies at the University of the West of England—called “When more is less: CGI, spectacle, and the capitalist sublime,” might hold an answer. He writes that CGI often attempts to create cinematic sublimity, but that it often only achieves spectacle—the kinds of movies that make hundreds of millions of dollars.
Tuck identifies spectacle and the sublime as two (of the many) attributes that can create an “affective visual experience.” For the sake of simplicity—I won’t pretend to understand Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant—the sublime can be defined as a sense of awe that entails admiration, fear, and incomprehensibility. In experiencing the sublime, we can understand that we’re seeing something incredible, but we can’t wrap our heads around the thing itself. Stanley Kubrick’s filmography is full of such moments—in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the monolith is sublime because it’s otherworldly, mysterious, and just a bit scary.
On the flip side, Tuck defines spectacle as artificial and quantifiable. Take the Wakandan showdown in Avengers: Infinity War as an example. As fun as it is, no viewer doubts that Thanos’s horde of alien invaders is CGI creations, which speaks to the artificiality of spectacle. Moreover, the spectacle is quantifiable; In that battle scene, we’re meant to be impressed by the thousands of individuals—real or CGI—converging in a single frame; its effect hinges on its quantifiability. Unlike the sublime, we understand spectacle because it is expressed in understandable numerical terms. It doesn’t challenge our sense of perception.
More often than not, films attempt to achieve the sublime through CGI but only result in the spectacle. A good example might be Man of Steel with its abundant religious imagery, which hints at the sublime but becomes undermined by spectacle-driven battle scenes. Even more frequently though, many films and filmmakers are all too happy to rake in the cash that mere spectacle brings in, without attempting sublimity. In this sense, spectacle’s association with quantifiability includes the sale of spectacle as a commodity by studios.
This leads me back to The Meg, which isn’t the least bit shy about offering wholesale spectacle—needless to say, the eponymous shark is a digital creation as artificial and immaterial as Thanos’s army or Henry Cavill’s un-mustachioed face from Justice League. The megalodon doesn’t challenge our perception—it looks like a really big shark. In The Meg’s trailer, we literally see the shark, in all of its spectacular, CGI glory. The shark is the thing, whereas, in a movie like Jaws, the obvious inspiration behind The Meg, it’s the implication of the shark—the fin, the wake, the wide mysterious ocean—that is the thing. What we can’t see has the power to elicit fear, which is a quality of the sublime. In this sense, the CGI-rendered shark positions The Meg as a pure spectacle.
Artificiality? Check. So how about quantifiability?
“Quantity” is written all over the film’s marketing, emphasizing the sheer size of the megalodon. “What you people discovered is bigger than we ever thought possible,” the trailer narrates. “It was the largest shark that ever existed,” it continues, before showing multiple shots that offer visual points of comparison between the hulking megalodon and smaller, presumably edible subjects like swimming vacationers (breakfast), a yacht (lunch), and a helicopter (dinner). In case it wasn’t clear that the megalodon is really freakin’ huge, one of the film’s posters features a human diver, a great white shark, and the megalodon, dwarfing them both. Clearly, The Meg has size on its mind, which speaks to the film’s concern with quantifiability. Case closed.
To deem The Meg a summer spectacle feels like an obvious claim. And it’s worth noting that such a label isn’t inherently a bad thing—you can bet that this article is financing an opening weekend ticket and a disgusting amount of popcorn for yours truly. But what’s really worth considering is the ocean of resources that’s been poured into The Meg—it’s a Chinese-American co-production with a $150 million budget, with a relatively bankable cast of stars like Jason Statham, Ruby Rose, Rainn Wilson, Li Bingbing, and Winston Chao. Given that most Chinese-American co-productions like The Great Wall flounder domestically and abroad, it’s only sensible that Warner Brothers and Gravity Pictures make a safe (if sizable) bet with The Meg.
But what strikes me about The Meg, and films like it, is how they fit too neatly within the parameters of spectacle, as if to suggest that an attempt at the sublime was never made in the first place. One has to wonder, what if the same amount of resources went into producing the sublime? After all, it is possible. Many sublime movie moments contain spectacular qualities—the introduction of the brachiosaur in Jurassic Park feels sublime, yet its star dinosaur is completely artificial. And as Jurassic Park would attest, rendering the sublime doesn’t preclude financial success. Most recently, the trailer for Godzilla: King of the Monsters gestured toward the sublime, positioning its titanic creatures as majestic natural deities, more like a snowy mountain peak than a death-bringing mutant lizard.
So what gives? When movies seem as big, dumb, and fun as The Meg, we can’t help but hand over fifteen dollars for a ticket. Until spectacle ceases to be spectacular, studios will happily finance more of it. Right now, the spectacle is a safe bet, and that’s on us. Ultimately, achieving the sublime is possible. We just have to make it so.