The movie-mad phenomenon of “Barbenheimer” has been a thrilling reminder that audiences can still embrace the movie-theater experience, turning up in awesome droves when they’re offered something new and adventurous. It’s also been powerful evidence that films that aren’t formulaic sequels can succeed in a way that too many recent cookie-cutter franchise films have not. But will all that go down as a lesson for the future? Or a giant anomaly?
We probably shouldn‘t kid ourselves. “The Meg 2: The Trench” is a trivial (if not unwatchable) piece of semi-preposterous big-budget junk. But arriving just two weeks after “Barbenheimer,” it stands as a pesky signifier of what mainstream movies have been for the last 40 years, and what they’ll likely continue to be. A cash-grab sequel to a cynical knockoff? Check. One that aims squarely at the lowest common denominator? Check. Visual effects that steamroll what was once known as character development? Check. “The Meg 2” is numbingly formulaic, promiscuously derivative and, for a few stretches (like the over-the-top third act), diverting in its very shamelessness. It is, in other words, all an August movie really needs to be. But there’s a way that the line between August movies and movies, period, is growing thinner every day.
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Five summers ago, “The Meg” was an oversize, underimagined “Jaws” knockoff that didn’t have the chutzpah to be more than a hoky piece of blockbuster nostalgia. But “The Meg 2” tries to up the ante, so that for all its patched-together ridiculousness we’re meant to watch it and think: Look at what a wild smorgasbord it is! A prelude, set during the Cretaceous period 65 million years ago, presents us with the dino version of dog-eat-dog — in this case, it’s carnivorous sea lizard eats wriggly fish, then a T. rex shows up and does its thing, until the real apex predator arrives: a megalodon, the prehistoric shark that makes the great white shark of “Jaws” look like a minnow. Leaping onto the beach, the meg chows down on that T. rex as if it were snack food.
There are multiple megs in “The Meg 2,” including a raised-in-captivity one named Haiqi. They glide through the ocean with bared triangle teeth and scarred bodies that look carved out of ancient stone. There’s also a giant octopus, plus those primeval lizards that seem to have stepped out of “Jurassic Park: Pet Shop World.” And there is Jason Statham, looking only slightly less lizardy as Jonas Taylor, the rescue diver-now-turned-Bondian eco-warrior. The film also features the Chinese martial-arts film superstar Wu Jing, who as Statham’s colleague doesn’t get much in the way of action scenes, though his character does get to show off his talents as a meg whisperer. There’s a supporting cast of human shark meat, as well as a witty actor or two (like Page Kennedy) mixed into the B-movie genericism.
If you want to know what a movie would sound like were it written entirely by AI, look no further than “The Meg 2.” The film has three screenwriters (Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber and Dean Georgaris), but the problem isn’t just that the dialogue they’ve come up with is leaden, or that the movie is sprinkled with discordant low-camp-meets-inept lines like “Before you start whining about the ecosystem, who cares?” It’s that everything we see or hear is functional, a series of arduous nuts and bolts jammed together.
For a while, “The Meg 2” is a deep-sea-dive-gone-wrong thriller, waterlogged division, as Statham’s Jonas leads a research expedition in a pair of submersibles down to the Mariana Trench, 25,000 feet below the surface. The explorers come upon a secret station that’s been set up by a rogue mining operation. Saboteurs from Jonas’s institute are involved, but when he leads his team on a three-kilometer escape walk through the deep, or they have to battle their way out of the mining station, the film descends into undersea action clichés. That an entire school of megs are swimming around, looking for something to eat, adds little to the suspense.
Meiying (Sophia Cai), Jonas’s 14-year-old ward, has snuck onto the submersible, but the affectionate bickering between the two of them never adds up to much. “We do what’s in front of us,” Jonas instructs Meiying, “then we do the next thing.” That sounds like how a computer writes a screenplay. “The Meg 2” plods along until it reaches Fun Island, a tropical resort that provides a pastel background and plenty of extras for the film’s creature-feature climax.
This is why we go to a “Meg” movie: to see Statham ride a yellow speedboat, armed with three chemical harpoons, as the megs chase him in formation, or to see a gigantic tentacle reach out of the sea to battle a helicopter, or to see the villains get chomped with a well-timed out-of-the-blueness. “The Meg 2” was directed by the British indie cult genre filmmaker Ben Wheatley (“High-Rise”), and in the culminating episode, at least, he scales up effectively. Which isn’t quite the same as making a good film. The “Meg” movies have now shot beyond flagrant “Jaws” nostalgia to become their own semi-tongue-in-cheek trash thing. They’re kind of like “Godzilla” movies minus the atomic-bomb subtext. They make Godzilla look deep.
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