Review: Ben Wheeler
Around a century ago in Hollywood, a Golden Age of filmmaking began that lasted almost four decades. Francis Ford Coppola, director of some of the greatest films of the “New Hollywood” period that followed, believes we may be on the cusp of a New Golden Age after the huge box office and critical success of films such as Barbie and Oppenheimer.
I’m inclined to believe him, having been seriously impressed by what has entered the popular imagination as Barbenheimer, as well as many other films currently screening across Fiji (M:I-7, Talk to Me).
It was therefore with a heavy heart that I saw the first trailer for The Meg 2: The Trench in the cinema some weeks ago. I had previously consigned The Meg (2018) to the trash can of film history without even bothering to watch it. For shame!
But then something started to happen.
I became hypnotised by the sleek, muscular, hydrodynamic form before me. Always moving forward, its eyes lifeless, like a doll’s, constantly baring its teeth: Jason Statham was starting to win me over.
I shuffled slowly forward until I found myself leaning into the glow of the big screen, shocked and impressed as Statham rode a jet ski up a giant wave towards a megalodon, harpoon in hand, with a look of grim determination that had me genuinely worried for the 80-foot prehistoric shark.
This film is ridiculous, I thought, chuckling with glee; but it knows it, and is leaning in hard.
I was, for want of a better word, hooked.
I went home and watched The Meg and found, much to my delight that yes, it was trashy, but it was so much more. It has a B-movie feel, but with a big budget and great CGI that captures the depths of the ocean as a place of majesty and mystery, as well as danger. Most importantly, like all truly great monster movies – and truly great monsters – it has both a heart and a conscience.
More than that, though, it displays some serious eco-fiction credentials, taking time out from the marine mayhem, again and again, to nod to important battles going on around the world by environmental activists.
One crew member obliquely references a past with Sea Shepherd, the organisation that uses direct action to defend marine wildlife and protect their habitat. In another extended sequence about poachers cutting off shark fins and throwing their mutilated corpses back into the water “all for a bowl of soup,” we bear witness to the aftermath, and its link to the unravelling action causes both characters and audience to wonder: who are the real monsters here?
But that’s not all.
As the film moves inextricably towards a climax in which the megalodon hits a popular tourist resort, we get a sequence that screams over-tourism and environmental abuse, with beaches and waters packed with luridly coloured holidaymakers.
As one small child stuffs his face with ice cream and demands to go in the water (“I want I want I want!”) I found myself willing his mother to just let him go – a pretty subversive thought, for which I doff my cap to the filmmakers.
Meanwhile, under the surface the critique of modern life and attitudes to the ocean continues with a slow pan of the seabed littered with the plastic detritus of these selfish seekers of leisure and pleasure: sunglasses, sunscreen bottles and mobile phones interrupting our sight of the spectacular shark.
Who are the monsters indeed?
THE MEG 2: THE TRENCH
Suitably impressed with this layered (dare I even say, “deep”?) film, I went back to the cinema for the first public screening of The Meg 2 in Fiji, praying my hopes were not set just a little too high.
In a surprise twist, however, I enjoyed the sequel even more than the original.
The opening sequence, which sees Jason Statham and team back in action, helping to put the kibosh on an international operation to dump radioactive waste in the Western Pacific Ocean, could not be more on-the-nose as the Japanese government prepares to do the very same on the real-world stage later this year.
The first half gave me some serious Ridley Scott Alien feels, mixed up with James Cameron’s underrated underwater epic The Abyss. Director Ben Wheatley brings his darkly iconic style to this sequel in a marked shift away from the hokey, jokey feel of Jon Turtletaub’s part one, making it more Empire Strikes Back than A New Hope.
As the story develops, however, the tone lightens – knowing that people are here for some ludicrous-speed-style fun – but the subtext is unrelenting. Much of the action and danger is found to be the direct result of nefarious billionaires and corporations who want to exploit and extract minerals from marine trenches with no regard for the consequences.
“Don’t whine to me about the ecosystem!” says one baddie, spelling it out for us. “Think about the billions of dollars we can make, with no one able to see the damage we do!”
For anyone currently following debates around deep sea mining in the Pacific, this comment hits home hard.
Once you remove the masks from the ne’er-do-wells of the expanding Meg franchise, Scooby Doo-style, you realise *gasp!* the real monster was capitalism all along.
This idea is nothing unique or revelatory.
We all know that the side effects of that global ideology are killing the planet: from the constant consumerist conflation of identity and happiness with material things; planned plastic product obsolescence; working to afford two weeks a year on a garishly loud, crowded beach, flooding countries with not only dollars but tonnes of tourist trash; with this layered cake of flotsam and jetsam topped off with a fiery fossil fuel-shaped cherry that’s melting the ice caps and causing the oceans to rise…
What is new about these films, is that if you can look at them with the right kind of eyes, you can almost see the high-water mark – that place where the wave of rampant short-sighted greed finally breaks and rolls back, and people from all over the world work together to fix the problems they face.
“We deal with what’s in front of us now, and then figure out what to do next!” becomes a repeated mantra throughout The Meg 2, helping characters deal with the overwhelming nature of the obstacles they face. It could just as well serve anyone looking at the mounting environmental problems in the world we live in today.
Moreover, these films are remarkable for their depiction of East-West cooperation, both in terms of their production and marketing campaigns, and in the thick of the story’s action.
Not only is Jason Statham joined – and matched – in The Meg 2 by Chinese superstar actor, director, and martial artist (and of course box-office gold) Wu Jing, the two also appear to be co-parenting the now-orphaned Meiying (Shuya Sophia Cai, reprising her role from the first film).
Add to this Kiwi actor Cliff Curtis’ Māori heritage, and you even have a nod to traditional Oceanian knowledge in the fight to restore balance to the world’s ecosystems.
As for local audiences right here, well… I won’t say anything about the Easter Egg ode to Fijian mythology in The Meg 2 because… oops! I’ve already said too much!
Now, it has been said that I read too much into movies.
But that doesn’t matter, because what these films are first and foremost are darkly funny, action-packed monster flicks, with enough ecocritical subtext, emotional content and jump scares to keep audiences buying tickets for seats they will only really use the edge of.
The Meg is available on most online streaming sites or wherever you find your movies.
The Meg 2: The Trench opened in cinemas across Fiji this week.