The latest Jason Statham thriller, The Meg, claims that it's a "science fiction action horror" film about an enormous shark terrorizing a deep-sea research station. That's a lot of genre ground for one film to cover, but "science fiction" implies its premise is based on some element of science fact. The Meg's title comes from "megalodon", the full name of a giant shark species thought to be extinct that Statham and company must stop before it munches its way through China's beaches. But are megalodon sharks real like in The Meg?
Sure enough, the movie's based on fact, but takes some liberties translating it to fiction. Carcharocles megalodon (meaning "big tooth") was a species that existed 23 to 2.6 million years ago, up to the end of the Pliocene era. Fossil remains have been found the world over in a variety of marine locations and depths, including where The Meg's research team makes their surprise discovery, the Marianas Trench. Whether megalodon were able to survive the extreme pressures at the deepest point in Earth's oceans for extended periods remains unknown (and unlikely), but in The Meg, the research team discovers the species surviving near the Trench's heat vents, trapped and prevented from surfacing by the cold waters above.
A species thought to be extinct surviving through millions of years to present day sounds outlandish, but it happens frequently enough that it has its own term. "Living fossils", or species that were known solely through fossil record only to be later discovered alive, include lobsters, redwood trees, beetles, and most famously the coelacanth fish. Thought to have died out 65 million years ago, two species of coelacanth were discovered, like The Meg, to be living in deep sea canyons off the African coast.
In Jaws, the movie that launched a thousand beach-related phobias, police chief Martin Brody utters the famous line, "we're gonna need a bigger boat" on finally catching a glimpse of the great white shark that's terrorized his town. Great white sharks are, on average, 14 feet in length. If Brody caught a glimpse of Carcharocles megalodon, he'd probably want an ocean liner just to be safe. From fossil records, megalodons were thought to be, at a very conservative guess, 16 to 18 meters (53 to 60 feet) long, with some fossil records indicating they could grow up to 24 to 25 meters (79 to 82 feet) in length. Here's a picture for scale:
The gray and red are the maximum and minimum sizes the megalodon is thought to be based on current fossil records; that's still at least 10x larger than a great white. The creature attacking the deep-sea research team in The Meg looks to be about that large, but of course the poster stretches its scale beyond even that — as if a 75-foot shark wasn't frightening enough on its own without exaggeration.
The Meg isn't the first film to take frightening science fact (enormous, whale-chomping shark roaming prehistoric waters) and distort it to action-packed Hollywood fiction. With far lower budgets and fewer pretenses to accuracy, the Megashark series, Supershark, Jurassic Shark (that's not even the right era), Shark Hunter, Megalodon, and most infamously Shark Attack 3: Megalodon all use the thinnest veneer of scientific plausibility to make what people apparently can't get enough of — giant shark movies. The bigger the bite, the better the box office.
At least The Meg is relatively consistent with scale and size, and has a much larger FX budget than those other movies. This clip from Shark Attack 3 should give an idea of how far films have come in trying to scare audiences with tales of prehistoric terror.
Yeah. Compared to that, The Meg looks like a documentary. The film takes some pains to show what working and dealing with deep-pressure environments and the creatures who live there would be like, but since it's an action film, it's in service of putting everyone under pressure and in danger during daring action sequences. Still, if people wanted to genuinely appreciate deep marine research without the hype, there are plenty of live streams to check out; summer blockbusters are all about spectacle.
With an international cast and plenty of hype from giant-animal movie fans, The Meg, out August 10, will probably suit its intended audiences just fine, regardless of scientific accuracy. When the movie makes its ways to U.S. waters, it'll be just in time to remind everyone why our early ancestors left the oceans right as we dive back in.