Sharks aren’t the only animals with horror movie cred. But while creature features have tackled almost every commonly known animal under the sun (or sea, or elsewhere), there’s not, say, a big-studio killer-snake movie every two or three years.
It’s still striking that sharks — easy to demonize because of their dead-looking eyes and supposed relentlessness, and because of the enduring popularity of Jaws and TV’s Shark Week — have inspired such a range of horrors, from stripped-down and intimate (The Shallows) to downright grim (Open Water) and back to SyFy-level chintz. The latter is the dangerous water that Meg 2: The Trench winds up occupying, risking self-annihilation for the sake of sometimes self-conscious silliness.
Though 2018’s The Meg was a long-gestating adaptation of a Jaws-ish novel, it didn’t bear much resemblance to the all-time shark movie champion. Meg 2 swims further away; it may be the first big-budget shark movie to so thoroughly rip off Deep Blue Sea, itself a champion of Jaws ripoffs. With its broader menagerie of killer sea creatures, Meg 2 also owes a debt to Steven Spielberg’s other megahit creature feature, Jurassic Park (or, more accurately, the goofier moments of its Jurassic World sequels). What the series lacks, compared to its unofficial source material, is horror movie nerve: The first movie could barely muster the fortitude to let its gigantic prehistoric sharks actually consume any delicious humans.
Meg 2 remains a PG-13 affair, even with director Ben Wheatley, best known for violent thrillers and dark comedies, stepping in for the guy who made Phenomenon. The new film rejoins Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), now using his seafaring brawn to fight environmental crimes at the behest of the Oceanic Institute and making repeated submarine journeys into a lost-world trench (presumably as security detail, having defeated an escaped megalodon in the previous film). The creatures are kept at bay by a thermocline, a layer of shifted-temperature water trapping them in their habitat — save one megalodon, who has been inexplicably raised in captivity by the well-meaning yet deeply stupid scientists. (This is such a dumb idea that the movie can’t regard it as a convenience, and seems uncertain about how to make it a plot point.)
Suyin (Li Bingbing), the oceanographer from the previous Meg, has been unceremoniously killed off screen between movies, leaving behind her now-teenage daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai). Meiying is eager to follow in her mom’s ocean-exploring footsteps, while both of her surrogate dads, Jonas and her uncle Jiuming (Wu Jing), balk at this idea (Jonas especially; Jiuming is more of a daredevil). A large chunk of Meg 2 is less a monster mash than an underwater adventure thriller, which is as good a way to kill time between shark attacks as any. Meiying stows away on a routine trench run, which turns deadly when the scientists (and whatever Jonas is) discover a rogue mining operation with unexpected backing. There are also additional megalodons down there, because, as Qui-Gon Jinn sagely pointed out, there’s always a bigger fish.
There’s no rule, however, that there’s always a better-looking fish. For years, conventional wisdom held that nighttime settings and rainy weather could help conceal dodgy visual effects, and Meg 2 takes that strategy to extreme with its long underwater sequences. The deep-ocean murk and unreal textures don’t just enhance the middling CG; they create easy shortcuts to stylization, with reflective surfaces, red emergency lighting, and bioluminescence providing Wheatley with better image-making opportunities than the overlit, frequently ugly original. It doesn’t have the painterly textures of 2020’s Underwater (or the moodiness of Wheatley’s smaller pictures), but at least Meg 2 doesn’t spend as much time skimming the surface as its predecessor. If Wheatley seems a bit lost as to how to wring the maximum amount of suspense from this material, he at least maintains a location-hopping cornball sci-fi zip.
Unfortunately, what goes down must come back up to the surface for a protracted and increasingly manic monster-attack climax, as the bad guys’ machinations loose another set of megs. In the movie’s final 45 minutes or so, the watery setting only exacerbates the fakeness of the CG animals, frequently green-screened settings, and even sometimes the computerized goopiness of the water itself.
It’s not just the effects that falter, either; the editing hits increasing chop as Wheatley cuts between various mini set-pieces. Still, he does have some fun with the shoddy-looking monsters, at one point placing a (virtual) camera just behind a megalodon’s massive teeth as victims are swept inside its mouth and, presumably, down its gullet (an R-rated version of this shot could have been a great B-movie knockoff of a terrifying moment from the recent Nope). In fine (though, again, not fine-looking) B-movie tradition, a giant squid is shown primarily as an endless series of tentacles emerging from water. None of the creatures have Jaws-like stealth; the megalodons seem positively addicted to swimming with their fins protruding from the surface of the water.
Sharks acting nearly as oblivious as their prey is an innovation of sorts, if not a positive one. The truth is, Meg 2 has virtually nothing to contribute to the shark movie subgenre apart from a size-does-matter approach that the movie unfortunately, despite a presumably substantial budget, is too cheap to properly show off. Its simpler spectacle derives from throwing the cartoon stoicism of Jason Statham into the shallowest of deep ends. The charms of other cast members, including reliable character actor Cliff Curtis and Resident Evil alum Sienna Guillory, aren’t at shark-slaying levels; Statham is, though, as ever, he’s more fun in hand-to-hand combat with actual humans.
Two movies in, the Meg series doesn’t seem to have much idea about what makes sharks scary, apart from the fact that they appeared that way in other, better movies. If too many movies have turned sharks into calculating forces of pure malevolence, at least those understand the primal, instinctive terror we may feel upon the realization that many parts of this planet do not belong to us. The trench of Meg 2 has no such terror attached, nor a sense of wonder. (More fantastical Warner movies like Aquaman or Godzilla vs. Kong do a better job on both counts.) Statham is an indomitable force the movie mostly understands; sharks, meanwhile, remain just another barely sketched bad guy.
Meg 2: The Trench hits theaters on Aug. 4.