2.5 out of 5 stars

Ben Wheatley’s an English filmmaker celebrated for folk horrors like Kill List (2011), Sightseers (2012), and In the Earth (2021). He’s made a few overtures to “the mainstream” with the star-studded Free Fire (2016) and a remake of Rebecca (2020) for Netflix, but I don’t think anybody predicted his next move would be directing the sequel to a giant shark movie. It’s certainly an interesting proposition, akin to Nicolas Roeg deciding to make Jaws 3-D (1983).

Again based on a Steve Alten novel about prehistoric megalodons surviving into modern times, Meg 2: The Trench picks up five years after events you’ll likely have forgotten happened in The Meg (2018). Fortunately, this sequel requires little knowledge of Jon Turteltaub’s original, as we’re reacquainted with eco-warrior Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham) trying to stop the illegal dumping of hazardous waste into the ocean. He’s helped by friends James “Mac” Mackreides (Cliff Curtis) and Rigas (Melissanthu Mahut), while raising his step-daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai) with the help of her uncle Jiuming (Chinese superstar Wu Jing). The existence of prehistoric megalodons in the Mariana Trench is now public knowledge, although the beasts are safely contained 25,000-feet beneath research facility Mana One under to a protective thermal layer. All except for one captive “meg” named Haiqi that Jiuming raised from infancy and believes he’s bonded with.

The tick with monster movies, from great ones like Jurassic Park (1993) to weaker ones like, well, The Meg, is finding a way to make audiences care about the humans. This need to introduce likeable characters, establish their relationships, write them fun interplay, and ensure they’re always doing interesting things, is essential to making us care about the action sequences they’re thrown into. The difficulty is that audiences are only really here to see the monsters eat people and cause chaos, so crafting a story that works whenever they’re off-screen is a big challenge.

It certainly helps that this film is adapting a novel from 1999, so there’s a degree of quality in the existing material to work with. Alten is definitely no Michael Crichton, but as an author he’s not driven by a desire to create visual spectacle because books need to work on a deeper level. This adaptation by returning screenwriters Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, and Dean Georgaris isn’t going to win any awards, but it manages to make the extended absences of megalodons work relatively well. I was never tapping my foot impatiently for sharks to resume gobbling up people in wetsuits.

The Trench of the title is perhaps the real star, being portrayed like an alien planet on the sea bed populated with many strange and unusual critters besides the titular megalodons. It seems to be taking some cues from Pacific Rim (2013) and Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), although most of the film is a straightforward underwater adventure with humans battling a hostile environment, as Jonas and his crew find themselves stuck at the bottom of the trench inside broken submersibles with their oxygen running low. There’s even some nonsense with exosuits that enable people to withstand extreme underwater pressure, so we’re able to follow the characters in various types of danger and not just watch them react through portholes at CGI sharks.

It’s difficult to see Ben Wheatley’s creative fingerprints on Meg 2, perhaps because he’s operating in such a different genre and level of production than we’re used to seeing from him. The only obvious connection is how this is another film designed to scare and thrill audiences, but it’s tonally a million miles away from the low-budget indies he’s done. Meg 2 is more on the camp level of Piranha 3D (2010) —another aquatic horror directed by an indie horror filmmaker in Alexandre Aja. Maybe it’s a new rites of passage that 21st-century horror directors have to take a stab at modern versions of the many Jaws (1975) rip-offs that were once so popular? If so, maybe Wheatley will eventually return to the genre with a better movie, as Aja did with the alligators movie Crawl (2019).

As with its predecessor, Meg 2 evokes micro-budget Syfy Original Movies like Sharktopus (2010) or Sharknado (2013)— only with a major studio handing it to a serious filmmaker with $130M+ to spend and ensure a degree of realism counters the outrageousness. But Wheatley’s clearly not leaning into this being Jurassic Park-level quality, despite how Meg 2 similarly takes place in a world where prehistoric beasts escape captivity and start snacking on local sunbathers. He retains the anything-goes sense of fun you need from a film like this, delivering outlandish moments like Statham jousting with a megalodon using a jet-ski and exploding harpoon… a hovering helicopter being attacked by a giant squid’s tentacles whilst trying to refuel from a petrol pump… an elderly couple enjoying their time on a pedalo being unceremoniously eaten… and seeing swimmers being swallowed from the perspective of inside a shark’s mouth, etc.

Meg 2 isn’t good, but it lacks pretentiousness. It’s a strange career turn for Wheatley, but it prove he can handle a large budget and there are definitely moments of visual invention — especially in the climax set around an island paradise, involving amphibious lizards chomping down on those who think getting out of the water guarantees safety. If there’s one major negative to Meg 2 it’s a feeling Wheatley only got comfortable making Meg 2 towards the end, as most of the craziness and trailer-bait moments occur then.

Most of the film isn’t as knowingly ludicrous until the last act and plays things a bit too serious, which is a shame considering the runtime’s over two-hours. But Meg 2: The Trench is never boring and overcomes its many downsides with a healthy awareness of its own stupidity. If you’re after a summer movie with eye-rolling quips, stupid science, stock characters, and a VFX budget that surpasses what something of this quality deserves… look no further.

USA CHINA | 2023 | 116 MINUTES | 2.39:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH

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Cast & Crew

director: Ben Wheatley.
writers: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber & Dean Georgaris (based on the novel by Steve Alten).
starring: Jason Statham, Wu Jing, Sophia Cai, Page Kennedy, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Skyler Samuels & Cliff Curtis.