Any film where one character reacts to a near-fatal undersea incident by saying “That was close” and another responds with “… Too close” should probably not clear space on the mantle for anything other than a Razzie Award. And yet there is another line of dialogue in Meg 2: The Trench that best summarizes how this lunk-headed slice of high-gloss B-movie cheese wound up—unlike the first Meg—on the right side of the divide that separates bad films from films that embrace how bad they knowingly are: “The impossible just got possible.”
The original Meg, from 2018 and starring a slab of granite chiseled from the dank basement of an English pub and given the name Jason Statham, was director Jon Turteltaub’s push-button exercise in impersonal genre thrills. For The Meg 2, Turteltaub has been replaced by the more darkly clever Ben Wheatley (Free Fire), who delivers a sequel that often plays as a supersized do-over of the original film, but at least he meets the audience on their terms and seems to be laughing with the rest of us. Even if it takes him entirely too long to get there.
Meg 2, which is based on the second novel in Steve Alten’s Meg series (there are currently six), isn’t content to serve up just one Megalodon, the prehistoric shark that weighs up to 50 tons and is more than 60 feet long. The necessity of endless sequels being the mother of invention, the scope of the action and the number of ravenous sea species have increased. But in the film’s lengthy opening stretch, the enemies aren’t Megs, alligator-sized salamanders, or the giant cephalopod. They’re logic, common sense, and a lack of urgency. Little of this is alleviated by Statham, back again as Jonas Taylor, the indestructible rescue diver who “fought the Megalodon and lived to tell the tale.” He seems on autopilot here, looking a bit weary and vaguely disappointed at having no other purpose than to save everyone else’s bacon, unless you consider his inability to tie a tie a noble obstacle to overcome.
Jonas does have 26 trench dives without an incident, a safety record destined for the scrapheap when he and his crew—including the first film’s now-14-year-old Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai)—dive 25,000 feet in a submersible through a thermal layer that previous technology rendered impossible to breach. Their voyage to the bottom of the sea is interrupted by a Meg that escaped from captivity at the Mana One research facility and the discovery of a station on the ocean floor harboring an illegal mining operation.
At least that’s what we think is going on. Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos’ lensing is consistently murky and with few clear relationship shots between the Meg and the submersible, it rarely registers how gigantic Jonas’ adversary is. Even the benevolent sea creatures meant to elicit a wondrous Avatar: The Way Of Water vibe are too dark to appreciate. And the slow pace, which seems inadvisable considering the crew has abandoned ship and is sauntering three kilometers to the mining station with only 20 minutes of oxygen remaining, repeats (one of) the mistakes of the previous film.
Eventually, Wheatley starts ratcheting up the action with more close shaves, but none more ridiculous than when Jonas swims 25,000 feet below the surface without a suit because, well, something about his sinuses protecting him from the water pressure. It’s a nonsensical solution to the crew’s current problem, one that’s begging to be played as satire, or at least comedy. But Wheatley, abandoning his unique style in the name of international box office results, presents it without a drop of humor or camp. The same can be said for the rogues’ gallery of one-note, Western capitalist villains unlawfully extracting rare earth minerals for profit (a fitting enemy in a film primarily bankrolled by a Chinese production company). That includes a saboteur on Mana One whose verbal threats are on par with a pissed-off soccer parent and who is dispatched via a blatant rip-off of Samuel L. Jackson’s death in Deep Blue Sea.
That Renny Harlin thriller always knew whether you were laughing with it or at it, a calculation Wheatley finally gets right during a second hour where the film, literally and figuratively, emerges from the depths. In what is essentially a new and improved version of the original’s Sanya Bay home stretch, Jonas and the others wind up on Fun Island, a beach resort where multiple Megs, giant hissing salamanders, and an enormous cephalopod jolt the film to life. Everyone gets in on the action, especially the returning DJ (an enjoyable Page Kennedy), the first to acknowledge the film he’s actually in by noting that the poisoned-tipped bullets in his gun are just like the ones in Jaws 2.
The shot of Jonas harpooning a Meg while riding a jet ski on an enormous wave and the POV from inside the Meg’s mouth as soon-to-be-lunch tourists struggle helplessly are shameless in the best possible way. All this, plus the mano-a-mano between a Meg and a giant cephalopod, suggests that Wheatley knows how to deliver the goods but instead chose a slow and self-serious build. Yet it’s almost worth the wait to see Jonas kick a bad guy into the mouth of an approaching Meg and then say, “See you later, chum.” Not even Arnold Schwarzenegger at his ’80s apex or the Roger Moore-era James Bond would have attempted a line that cheesy, let alone made it work.
It’s faint, if legitimate, praise to say that Meg 2: The Trench is better than the first film because, while it repeats everything the first film did wrong, it improves on everything it did right. It lacks the drive, imagination, and sense of awe to work as a pastiche of Aliens, The Abyss, Jaws, and Jurassic Park. But the more fulsomely the movie embraces its big budget, DVD-era silliness, the longer it and the audience are riding the same enjoyably stupid wave.
Meg 2: The Trench opens in theaters on August 4