Five years ago, The Meg came out and was a pleasant summer-ending surprise. Placing its tongue firmly in its cheek for 113 minutes, the watery spectacle allowed us to watch the ever-watchable Jason Statham go mano-a-mano with a 75-foot shark. The idea behind the movie (which was based on a much more sober-minded novel by Steve Alten than had been in development for nearly a quarter century) was apparently to make a good old-fashioned monster movie with a few knowing winks to the audience.
The Meg’s box office success and its final shot also virtually ensured a sequel, so now Meg 2: The Trench arrives with Statham and a few other holdovers (Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Sophia Cai) back for another round. Meanwhile workmanlike director Jon Turtletaub has been replaced this time by the eccentric indie maverick Ben Wheatley.
Set 10 years after the first film, the screenplay by Jon and Erich Hoeber and Dean Georgaris (the same team from the first movie) finds Statham’s Jonas Taylor and pals still exploring the secret underwater world discovered last time deep in the Mariana Trench. They’re also keeping an eye on the megs that live down there from their Mana One base of operations. Above the surface, however, Li BingBing’s Suyin Zhang from the last movie has apparently passed on, while her now-teenage daughter Meiying (Cai) lives on Mana One with both Jonas and her uncle Jiuming (Wu Jing) as surrogate dads. With funding from a billionaire entrepreneur (Sienna Guillory), Jiuming continues to map the Trench while trying to train a megalodon that the base has in captivity.
But when Jonas, Jiuming, submersible pilot Rigas (Melissanthi Mahut), and a few disposable explorers spot a previously unseen base on the bottom of the Trench, they immediately suspect something, uh, fishy is afoot. Before they can say “corporate espionage,” an explosion traps their submersibles in the Trench and ruptures the thermocline barrier that keeps the megs down there, allowing two of them to escape.
Going in, we thought Wheatley, the director of such unsettling, often blackly funny horror or horror-adjacent outings like The Kill List, Sightseers, High-Rise, A Field in England, and In the Earth would understand the assignment and perhaps bring something a little more subversive to the monster movie genre that The Meg already successfully satirized. But you can barely tell that he directed this thing at all. It lacks the hand-crafted aesthetic of his best efforts, and he’s saddled with a script that trudges through a fairly tedious, convoluted first two acts before turning up the craziness for the finale.
That’s the problem right there, though. With the first movie already chronicling, albeit in humorous fashion, the classic narrative of humans discovering and fighting a giant new monster they’ve never seen before, that cliché has been taken off the table for Meg 2. So short of finding even bigger and meaner megs—the movie’s new creatures, called “Snappers,” are actually smaller, sort of low-rent underwater velociraptors—the movie settles for keeping more copies of the meg from the first film lurking around while a sabotage thriller rattles around up front for more than an hour.
As for the other monsters in the movie, including those Snappers, they’re so spottily generated by CG and so perfunctorily introduced, often in murky underwater scenes that are barely watchable, that even the sense of awe generated at certain moments in the first movie is not present here.
We kept waiting for Meg 2 to break out, but the first two acts present us with a plot and new characters we care little about (it’s hard to even parse the names of all the undistinguished supporting cast members who die in the first half of the story), as well as generic, easy-to-spot villains, and hard-to-define stakes. An all-out battle in the finale between monsters, heroes, and enemies on another island resort literally called Fun Island does liven up the proceedings with some entertaining deaths and a few hilariously heroic moments for Statham and friends. But it all comes too little, too late.
Statham scowls his way through the movie, as usual, and is always a welcome presence, but you get the sense that he’s going through the motions. And without a formidable female foil like Li BingBing in the first film (Rigas makes little impression, and the kid is just there to get herself in life-threatening situations), the movie turns into a half-hearted bromance between Statham and Jing.
This is easily Ben Wheatley’s least interesting film, and we hope that if he continues to dabble with making movies in the studio system, he finds an opportunity to really apply his often-skewed, frequently eerie worldview to something more compelling. The Meg found a nice balance between monster movie and camp send-up, and you got the sense that everyone was in on the joke. But you can’t tell the same joke twice and get the same response, and that’s what ultimately sinks Meg 2 all the way to the bottom of the Mariana Trench.
Meg 2: The Trench is in theaters Friday (August 4).