• Ben Erickson

The Meg

Ever since Spielberg's Jaws was released in 1975 there has been an exponential growth in shark films, each one more absurd than the next. Time and again creatures which have long been a vital element to our oceanic ecosystems are treated as vicious, merciless killing machines. The good news about The Meg is it is so clearly over the top in its portrayal of the long extinct megalodon species that viewers cannot help but laugh during its moments of quasi-drama, awkward dialogue, and senseless plot rationale. Or perhaps I was the only one in the theatre who knew it was a comedy... Still, following Jaws and Deep Blue Sea, The Meg has stolen third place in my personal favourites among shark films for delivering a fun, hilarious, tension-filled, Jason Statham-filled action piece with no real attempt to explain the motivations of a single character. Solid gold. The film was directed by Jon Turteltaub and scored by English composer Harry Gregson-Williams, based on a horrendous book titled Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror by author Steve Alten. Not to be mistaken with his brother Rupert, Harry is another well loved composer and conductor, writing for film, television, and video games. Some of his better known works include the Shrek franchise, Kingdom of Heaven, the first two The Chronicles of Narnia films, and the Metal Gear Solid games. Gregson-Williams has worked with many distinguished directors besides, including Michael Bay, Tony Scott, Joel Schumacher, Ridley Scott, and Michael Mann, and he had only just gotten off the set of Equalizer 2 when he began work on The Meg. The production marks his first collaboration with Turteltaub which, due to the exorbitant amount of time involved in CGI production, Gregson-Williams started work on before the shark was even on screen. The composer went above and beyond the call of duty (pun intended) for The Meg, writing a superbly understated score that endows beauty, fear, and every primal urge between. With regards to the B Movie sub-genre of thriller that is the "shark film" few composers have made any real distinction for themselves following Jaws. But it was John Williams' work on Jaws -- the first and some would say the only good shark film -- that proved to us a good score can be written for a shark. All it took was an alternating, two-note expression using a semitone, the smallest interval of the Western classical system. Gregson-Williams uses a similar primitivist device with his motif for the megalodon, opening with a chromatic skip-step figure that trails with menacing tritone leaps. Two other motifs make up the thematic material of the score: (1) the hero motif, a rising, five-note motive that enters just about any time Jonas Taylor (Statham) puts himself in the way of danger; and (2) the research team motif, following the discoveries and happenings of the ensemble cast. The megalodon motif and the hero motif can both be heard at the beginning of the film as Taylor works a rescue mission for a stranded nuclear submarine ("Sub Disaster"), and the research team gets its first breath of life as they explore the "real" bottom of the Mariana Trench ("A New World"). Fittingly, the octave leap to close the research team motif emulates a dive while at the same time creating a large breadth of space to take in new discoveries. The first sighting of the megalodon interestingly uses the research team motif instead of its own more frightening figure, because even though its sheer bulk is horrifying it is still an incredible find, with the music blossoming in awe of the re-discovery ("Prehistoric Species").

Another big influence on the score was the predominant setting for the film, China. The music adopts a handful of traditional Chinese instruments that join the orchestra, including a bamboo flute -- possibly a xiao flute, yet unconfirmed -- and a troupe of twenty-four Singapore based Chinese drum players, both heard intermittently within the film. The troupe flew in and recorded overnight in the studio with Gregson-Williams conducting. The composer used a number of electronic elements to bridge these more overt transition with ease, including turning dials -- possibly a cabasa or ratchet reduced in volume -- ("Jonas Descends"), electronic rhythms to join the wood blocks and drum troupe, and various synthesized sound effects that mimic the poise and gravitas of the ocean deep (ie. whale sounds and submerged echoes), resonating as one would imagine sound to carry underwater. The remainder of the orchestra uses all of our favourite conventional techniques that again work splendidly for the film. Sawing cellos and heaving hits from brass and percussion often follow the pursuit of the megalodon; aleatoric strings express Taylor's apprehension as he moves to implant the megalodon with a tracking device ("Tracker"); woodwinds, French horn, and harp -- often associated with water for its smooth, flowing quality -- create an idyllic setting as the team explores the bottom of the Mariana Trench ("A New World"); mid-register strings plunge down from an open fifth to a minor sixth alongside slippery violins and bells when the megalodon is near ("Sub Disaster" and "Meiying Explores"); and qawwali style vocal improvisations -- popularized in South Asia -- enter as the shark heads toward the mainland ("We Have A Plan"). The decision to stay with short motives and avoid lavish themes really helped make this score a tasteful, elegant injection among creature features for me. The Meg is not a film anyone should have to put any thought into whatsoever, and the music imitates this sentiment, matching and building on the tone of the picture perfectly.