There are two philosophies of shark movies. In Jaws (1975), you rarely see the shark. You rarely see the shark because the shark, a 25-foot and three-ton mechanical creation for the film, was hard to use. Jaws is a great movie because the shark was hard to use: it becomes about man’s hubris and not only the utter fear of a rogue killer shark — but in not showing the shark, it also becomes more terrifying as though it is uncapturable, in image and form, without posing imminent danger. The technical problem becomes the practical solution. The other school of thought is found in Ben Wheatley’s Meg 2: The Trench (and we use this possessive apostrophe very loosely). The Meg, from the prehistoric megadalon family, is about 60 feet long and weighs about 50 tons, and is created from the imagination of computer designers. It is not particularly phobia-inducing for the viewer, because as far as we know, the shark is long extinct. The other reason why is that we are shown the mammoth shark all the time. We are introduced to it peacefully before it breaks bad, escapes its controlled environment, joins a pack of other megadalons and other mythic sea creatures, and tries to kill everyone. There can not be any cleverness to how it is shot, exactly, since there is nothing to shoot and it’s just cooked up in a vfx lab later on.
This unsurprisingly creates a movie without many thrills. The idea of a big shark that can eat you whole and not in vicious, smaller bites, is somehow less scary. Perhaps because it is extinct and perhaps because we explore its environment before it explores ours, and nothing really shocking happens when we are down in the Trenches with it, so how are we then meant to be really terrified when we’re above the water? Meg is a sweetheart. Probably. Ben Wheatley is also a sweetheart. Definitely. The big appeal to this sequel, after the endearing nothingness of the first film, is that such a clever director is being given a big budget and gets to go make a blockbuster creature feature. What Wheatley makes instead, if we can really ascribe such a big movie to any person at all, is a standard Jason Statham action movie that happens to have massive sharks in it.
In theory, there is a good idea to invert the shark horror movie in the first hour of Meg 2: The Trench. The idea is that we go down into the trench with the Meg. Through a convoluted series of events, the cast ends up down below, and the apex predator of the sea glides above them. The crew’s submarine is compromised so they have to walk around in underwater suits for a while. They all resemble Marvel’s MODOK, just heads inside a fishbowl and you can’t tell if anything else has been shot by a camera or if one of several special effects studios have added everything but the faces in. In such cases, where a film is so murky-dark that we cannot make out any on-screen composition, it is hard to make any cases for the filmmaking or tell if it is even filmmaking we are watching. We end up with the characters exploring some mining operation and it doesn’t very clearly mean anything to the plot. We spend an hour meandering through the first sequence until the movie lives up to its title and tries to throw all of its tricks at the wall at once.
At the surface, there is always this possible second avenue for a Jason Statham and Jing Wu buddy shark movie to emerge and it never quite gets there. Sure, Statham and Wu get the only screentime of meaning or substance, besides the computerized shark, but there is an embedded layer where they play dual father figures for the daughter of Wu’s character, and it has every possibility to be endearing until nothing is really done with it. Likewise, the villainous plotline, of some ladies back at the ocean research center sabotaging the submarine and then trying to let loose the Meg on the world, feels like an excuse for action, which is fine, but the film doesn’t need to spend the time or energy that it has invested in these people.
If a Meg movie is doing anything other than having Statham fight a giant megalodon, it’s not living up to its full potential. The two hours of screentime could be filled with Statham and Wu repeatedly bonking the sharks on the nose with spears that do nothing and then everyone else gets eaten and they just barely get away so they can do it again and it would be a B+ movie every time. The lineage of Ben Wheatley’s movies, which are generally more thoughtful and spiritually darker than this ends up being, do not show up anywhere in particular. Wheatley got the bag and also got to make a big, bad creature feature. Fair enough. But what it turned out to be was a lightweight retread of the exact exposition and plot process as Colin Trevorrow’s Jurassic World (2015). The same movie but does so much less. No audience gets to be truly enthusiastic here, not of Meg, Jaws, creature features, Wheatley, or Jurassic Park movies.
This is all to say that feeling some level of disappointment, suggesting there is an untapped opportunity here and that the film falls below its possible outcomes, is also to suggest that it is going for more than the original movie. The original movie does give us bits of what we want: Jason Statham and a shark. By the end of Meg 2: The Trench, it in fact gives us much more of this. It gives us Jason Statham on a jet ski and a shark. Which is really beautiful. It’s too bad that is not the entirety of the movie with Jing Wu turning up to do random action set pieces in-between Statham water-skiing around a shark. That’s a better movie every time.
Half of Meg 2: The Trench is always a better movie. But, the key is also that it tried something, missing pretty hard at it, and then relents to just give us what we want. The original film, in contrast, is just blood in the water. It’s an offering that never comes and while this shouldn’t be the conclusion, it does feel like it finishes the original film’s sentence. Half the movie is what you think this movie is and half of it is impossible to see or judge. Eventually, you get to have some really simple fun at the movies. Meg should be many things it is not. What hurts it most is that it’s hard to fathom rewatching because of the long runtime with nothing really being done in it. And now we go back to waiting. It may not be until Statham is in his sixties (he’s now 56), but the possibility is still there: someone can still make a good Meg movie.