The sharks in Meg 2: The Trench are very big, but we don’t see a lot of them. They basically have bit parts in a movie partly named after them. This is a shame because the reason that you buy tickets to the big-shark movie is to see the big sharks, no matter how fake they look and now matter how clay-like the CGI has rendered their skin’s texture. The problem with choosing a villain so gargantuan—in this case the prehistoric shark species megalodon, which grew up to about 60 feet long, well over the size of a school bus—is that it doesn’t have to do much to wreak havoc. It just opens its mouth, skims the water, and in flows a light snack of humans. It’s a monster so powerful that it really doesn’t have to do much, and so it’s given not much to do in Meg 2.
The movie’s screenplay, like its predecessor (written by Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, and Dean Georgaris), is teeming with non-shark action: the illegal mining of precious metals to build superconductors; a 3 km walking trip along the bottom of the ocean in “exo-suits” (a stroll so breezy, you’d never have any idea that water doesn’t have the same consistency of air if you were, say, an alien from another planet and new to the concepts of water and air); an eager child actor (Sophia Cai as Meiying) whose expressions of glee and fear the camera lingers on as if this were a movie made for the Disney Channel in the ‘80s; a traitor in the Oceanic Institute, which does research and keeps a megalodon leftover from the first movie captive; lots of mugging and one-liners from protagonist Jonas (Jason Statham), like “See ya later, chum!” after kicking an adversary into a shark’s gaping mouth. Jonas has to compete for your interest not only with the sharks, but with Jiuming (Chinese action star Wu Jing), who runs the Ocean Institute in a hands-on/exo-suit-on kind of way.
This is D-level Statham though—his showing here is a shadow of the charisma and verve of Transporter. Meg 2 Statham is to peak Statham as a mechanical great white shark is to the real fish. The fatal flaw of both 2018’s The Meg and this sequel is positioning these movies as Statham vehicles. He can race them with a Jet-ski, he can hold his breath 25,000 feet down without a suit (as long as he just clears his sinuses, a character tells us), he can fend a shark off using only his foot, but he’s never going to be more compelling than a giant shark. It’s just impossible. For a franchise that revels in ridiculousness to the point that both entries seem equally devoted to satirizing the quirks of past shark movies as they do actually provoking scares, the most ridiculous thing in them is positioning Statham (and to a lesser degree Jing, who is less quippy but just as adept at hand-to-hand combat) atop the narrative food chain.
But then, it’s in these movies’ nature to be anthropocentric. Were a megalodon to be living in the Marianas trench (or some other trench) and then escape, as many have multiple times in this cinematic universe, why on earth would they spend their time targeting humans? That would be like humans hunting ants. The effort-to-protein yield wouldn’t be worth it. But being humans, we are self-centered, and we imagine that anything new and giant would naturally be fascinated by us, even if the end to that fascination is getting us into its belly. And so the second half of Meg 2 takes place at a resort called Fun Island, where unsuspecting vacationers are turned into shark food in a single gulp.
The plot is one convolution after the next—a way of treading water between fun big-shark footage. This time around, Ben Wheatley takes the directorial reins from Jon Turteltaub, and he does his best to inject style and an overall sense of genre respect into his filmmaking. Horror-action is a rare hybrid, and Wheatley takes a page from the queen mother of the subgenre, Aliens, in the claustrophobic scenes in the metallic base of the Oceanic Institute near the trench from which the megalodons rise thanks to a “giant hole” in the thermocline layer of water that usually keeps things separated. When the subs crap out thanks to meg interference and the crew has to walk along the bottom of the ocean, Wheatley smartly frames it as a kind of alien planet on earth, full of strange creatures (an eel with seemingly thousands of teeth, baby octopi) and odd plant life. (I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the debt the scenes in the trench owe to another James Cameron movie, The Abyss).
There are also several visual and narrative references to Jaws sequels: a shark in captivity (Jaws 3), a roaring shark (Jaws The Revenge), and even an overt reference to the first Jaws sequel (“I even made poison-tipped bullets, just like in Jaws 2!”). The Jaws sequels are widely despised, so for Wheatley to pay tribute to them at all feels like a slight subversion—an assertion of his individuality in a production that is otherwise full decisions that seem to have been imposed on him by the studio and byproducts of navigating the intricacies of helming an American/Chinese co-production (like that emoting child character and the PG-13ness of it all).
Some Meg 2 moments feel chest-tighteningly uncomfortable in light of the OceanGate submersible disaster from a few months ago. “Under Pressure” plays early in the movie as we’re introduced to the subs, and there’s a character whose exo-suit helmet begins cracking and poof. It implodes rapidly, not unlike those model videos that made the rounds while the search for the crew of the Titan was underway.
That shot of the helmet implosion is the most chilling thing in Meg 2 is telling—everyone here has bit off more than they can chew. The movie does manage to side-step the common shark-movie mistake of casting the creature at its center as an entirely unthinking eating machine. The meg in captivity, Haiqi, has a rare bond with Jiuming, who raised the shark since she was a pup and can control her with a kind of underwater training clicker. This bond is later exploited in service of the movie’s preoccupation with humankind prevailing over nature, which is a stupid story we’ll apparently keep telling ourselves until we’re blue in the face as a result of our permanently polluted atmosphere. Yay for consistency, I guess.