Meg 2: The Trench
Directed by Ben Wheatley
SOME folks may find it hard to believe (having trouble myself) but The Meg and its present sequel Meg 2: The Trench are adapted from a pair of science-fiction novels by Steve Altern, with a possible six more books if this installment makes money (indications suggesting it will). Adapted by three writers no less, which raises the question: can you even tell?
Meg 2 is a mess, no question of that: a cold open with Jonas (Jason Statham) moonlighting as environmental warrior battling a shipful of radioactive waste polluters that ends with our hero scooped out of hostile waters by a flying amphibian, then dumped into the latest Mana One expedition exploring deeper regions of the Mariana Trench thermocline, where the megs (short for Otodus megalodon) have been chillin’.
The revelations come fast and confused: turns out Mana One has been studying a captive meg named Haiqi, who breaks out of her enclosure and heads towards the thermocline, probably to mate; turns out the Mana One research facility has become a cover for illegal mining operations (rare earth elements crucial to tech including computers, radars, lasers, sonars); turns out select staff in Mana One are collaborating with mercenaries not just to extract rare earths but kill anyone that finds out.
Some of this is from Altern’s book, some likely additions to showcase Statham’s martial arts and kickboxing skills (he’s executive producer) since martial arts and kickboxing aren’t effective against 75-foot sharks but do work fine against armed goons. Billionaire media mogul Li Ruigang’s China Media Capital co-produced so a handful of Altern’s characters have been converted from Japanese to Chinese (including actor and martial artist Wu Jing — Tai Chi Boxer, The Wandering Earth — as Jiuming Zhang, present owner of Mana One), and much of the dialogue is in subtitled Mandarin. Yes, the movie opens wide in American theaters but the market the movie is really eyeing is China, not the United States.
If the script resembles some stitched-together Frankenwhopper creature don’t be too surprised; what is surprising is seeing Ben Wheatley (Kill List, A Field in England, In the Earth, High Rise) in the director’s seat. Apparently Wheatley was tired of dark and depressing and wanted to do something different; the producers in turn saw Wheatley’s Free Fire and wanted for their sequel that kind of fast-paced free-for-all.
So once more into the trench my friends, with a diverse (read: thrown together) cast and production team out to achieve who knows what — somewhere past the halfway point you start to suspect they haven’t the faintest idea either.
It doesn’t start well: for the first hour we watch Wheatley struggle with big budgeted underwater effects a la The Abyss, and remember why James Cameron spent 47 million in 1989 dollars or $115 million today (some say $70 million or $170 million today) and over a year of his life on the production: underwater action is difficult to film and often looks unthreateningly slow on the big screen. This murky, poorly lit first half is punctuated with scenes of our hero taking out mercenaries here and there, the high point being Statham deliberately breathing in water prior to swimming out an airlock without diving equipment — you’re again reminded of The Abyss which in turn quotes a similar Hail Mary gambit in 2001: A Space Odyssey — the hero ventures out into hostile environment practically naked, in the hopes of being born again.
Jonas succeeds and so improbably does the movie. Tossing plausibility out the window (or rather blowing it out an airlock) liberates Wheatley into having fun — and whaddaya know, we end up in Fun Island (actually a beach in Thailand) where not one but three megs hunt shapely swimmers in scanty g-strings through shallow water, mercenaries shoot at good guys, and nasty velociraptor-like creatures called Snappers chase the slow and incautious. Oh, and a giant octopus freshly escaped from Robert Altman’s production of Popeye threatens everyone else.
It’s silly summer fun that recalls the chaos of Wheatley’s own Free Fire, only with teeth and tentacles replacing high-velocity ammunition. Characterization and dramatic exposition is kept at minimum, but the movie does play up the easy camaraderie struck between Statham’s Jonas and Sophia Cai’s Meiying, the little girl in the original Meg grown into awkward tweener. One noticed a lot of affection between the two as co-conspirators in the first movie, whispering sophisticated adult banter at each other when no one else was listening; here the dynamic has turned into exasperated teen against helicoptering parent, but the banter is no less funny, and no less heartfelt — an odd nevertheless refreshing little detail in a huge noisy production about monster sharks.
Other holdovers from the original Meg have also, improbably, developed a character arc: Cliff Curtis’ Mac Mackreides turns into an unlikely action hero, fighting off Snappers and taking the bad guys’ escape chopper up in an attempt to rescue an endangered Meiying; Page Kennedy’s DJ, once a helpless shrieker who couldn’t even swim, is Mac’s equally unlikely stunt partner, kickboxing a few goons and toting a small emergency pouch complete with .50 caliber pistol and a strip of foiled Trojans.
Even Wheatley arcs a little through the course of the picture, from overwhelmed big budget filmmaker to subversive shitkicker shaking off his various executive producers to have the time of his life restaging highlights from favorite film: Jurassic Park (the opening beach dinosaurs, the Snappers); Jaws (the creature stalking unwary swimmers from below, Jonas sliding down a shark’s wide-open jaws); Deep Blue Sea (“You can relax…this place? Meg proof.”); even Clash of the Titans (kraken unleashed). One is reminded of one of those Hong Kong action pics that drag in every genre under the sun to help satisfy the audience’s many whims: the scuba divers, the jet skiers, the kickboxers, the kaiju freaks, even parents toting their kids to the movies (“See that? She’s obeying her father after all”). In no sane universe can I even begin to say this is good or even enjoyable (that first hour!) but for the masochistic and perverse you may find yourself unexpectedly rewarded.