Analysis Hollywood Hegemony

So long, old chum: Ben Wheatley hits rock bottom with ‘The Meg 2: The Trench’

Whenever an utter pile of dreck comes out in cinemas, producers and marketers love to cynically deflect blame back onto audiences, suggesting it’s their fault for attending the year’s dullest film because they ‘knew what they were signing up to’: unapologetic schlock. But while that might be the case with a Sharknado film, producers of The Meg 2: The Trench have gone out of their way to use director Ben Wheatley’s name to sell the movie as something it isn’t: interesting.

I was genuinely intrigued when I read that Ben Wheatley had signed up to direct The Meg 2. The first film had somehow managed to be a commercial success. But amid a glut of far more performatively stupid shark-bait, it didn’t seem like it would live long enough in people’s minds to draw them back for a second round. Appointing Wheatley – who made his name by injecting the techniques of social realism into the absurd scenarios of genre cinema – seemed to suggest a change of tack.

I’ve been a fan of Wheatley’s since my mid-teens, when Film4 moved onto Freeview, and brought me into contact with his early filmography. In fact I’d unknowingly been a fan of his before that, because he had been a writer for Time Trumpet, Modern Toss and Ideal – I just didn’t tend to pay attention to things like the credits back then. What I loved about his films was how he put those skills he developed in those earlier engagements to work.

As the likes of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh often do, Wheatley enjoyed taking a face you’d normally recognise for comedy, and inserting it into a kitchen-sink scenario. Rather than just hoping to get straight performances out of his cast in service of a serious, realist plot, Wheatley would then play with this dissonance by adding a layer of genre storytelling. Aspects of British life we would take as quaint and dependable were suddenly subverted into something disquietingly unfamiliar, and people who could make us laugh one minute became capable of unspeakably horrific acts in these once comforting settings – even though they retain a comedic self-awareness which pierces the absurdities necessary to make a genre narrative work.

My favourite example of this remains Down Terrace. Kill List is great, and is deservedly the film which is most widely declared to be Wheatley’s ‘best’ film, but for me the farcical world of micro-aggressions, family scraps, and aimless bickering which precede scenes of traumatic moments of violence in a recognisable domestic setting make Down Terrace maddeningly fascinating.  

As the years have passed, Wheatley seems to have wanted to move away from that kind of set-up, toward more conventional Hollywood fare. His attempt to adapt J. G. Ballard’s High-Rise saw him favour a cast of conventionally attractive A-listers over his usual collaborators, something he stuck with for his remake of Rebecca – and both films received mixed reviews at best. But 2021’s pandemic sci-fi horror In the Earth saw him revert to a tried and tested mode of operation, and was widely regarded as a return to form.

Wheatley being landed to direct The Meg 2: The Trench still felt like something of a marquee appointment in that context. Here was a director who had a reputation for leaning into comedy amid the darkest of situations, who also demonstrated an excellent understanding of building tension and shocking an audience. For a franchise which clearly didn’t take itself particularly seriously, but still wanted to deliver creature-feature-style horror, Wheatley’s arrival seemed like a coup.

The film’s trailer, which debuted earlier in the year, alluded to a production which might live up to those expectations. While Jason Statham and company were very much front and centre of the montage, a series of cutaways suggested that there would indeed be that quintessential Wheatley-style injection of banal normality into a ridiculous and deadly scenario. Two out-of-shape tourists breathlessly churning away on a pedalo become the target of a megalodon – while aboard the floating emblem of the summer migration the British commonly undertake, to a sterile resort to get some sun, while avoiding exposure to anything ‘foreign’. It is an image deliciously juxtaposing the insanity of the sea-creatures-run-amok genre, with the inanity of ‘normal’ British culture, and it gave me hope that there might be something interesting to come out of a project I would otherwise have avoided.

It makes me wonder what might have been if Wheatley had actually not simply coasted through this project on cruise-control. Even just to have one ‘normal’ person gruffly explaining how stupid every scenario is in Wheatley’s no-frills dialogue (from poking holes in the unnecessary and unimaginative plan of an insanely wealthy villain; to raising the questionable legality of trying to wipe out a species previously thought to have gone extinct 65 million years ago) could have put this film head and shoulders above its predecessor. But as is typical with gimmick-cinema, the best action from The Meg 2 is contained entirely in the trailer. Had it been left as a Hobo with a Shotgun-style gag, that would be great. But like that film, it is stretched out into an upsettingly bland mess.

To be fair, it is unclear just how much freedom Wheatley was really given with the production. There are no ‘unconventionally attractive’ British or Irish actors filling out the cast, and helping pad out the ludicrously bland dialogue with nagging concerns about the buffet at their now-destroyed beach resort (there is a tantalising cameo from Down Terrace star Robin Hill, but his corrupt sea captain only appears once at the beginning). Wheatley, despite being an exceptional writer, does not seem to have been allowed to punch up the script either – the same tedious hacks who wrote The Meg delivered the second script. And Wheatley was not asked to edit the film – something he did on all but one of his previous productions.

But still, this relentlessly dull shower of grey CG, sub-Breen acting, and nonsensical jump-cuts is is emblazoned with “A Ben Wheatley film” in its credits. It seems rather than having fallen on his head and forgotten how to make a film, Wheatley is a spent force – a burnt out and jaded creator who has decided to cash in on his name in place of making an effort.

Maybe that’s fair enough, considering how little money he probably made from Down Terrace, Kill List, Sightseers, or A Field in England, but I can’t help but find that the sadder option. Is this really all there is for independent artists? Be interesting until you catch the eye of a hack producer who will trade on your name for abject dross? And after you’ve gone down that route, is there any way back?

I’m not interested in going through The Meg 2 blow-by-blow. The junk science (if you hork a bunch of water into your sinuses, it is suggested you can stop your head imploding 11,034 metres under the sea); the kid-gloves we are handled with relating to gore (a woman’s head does implode – but into a cloud of turquoise bubbles, while her body immediately stops pumping blood through the arteries left exposed); and the spiteful delivery of a sub-plot about parenting that nobody wants to see (cue audible sighs as Statham’s ‘precocious’ idiot child nearly gets herself killed for the eighth time) are all indicative of a production which had no interest in the film’s audience’s enjoyment. So why should we care about their product?

The greater concern here is what will become of a talented and previously very exciting filmmaker. Maybe it’s a bit too soon to start with the eulogies, to be declaring so long, old chum. Perhaps this was a Scorsese-style one-for-them, one-for-me scenario; a cheap pay-day, which he wasn’t particularly invested in, and which could help Wheatley live well while producing something else arty and weird in comfort.

But honestly, Scorsese never made anything like as boring as a Meg film, however disinterested he was in his latest project. In turn, I can’t bring myself to raise my expectations for Wheatley’s next project – an inter-generational zombie comedy called Generation Z. Like The Meg 2, it sounds like there’s potential for his formula to work in there… but now I hope, rather than expect, for that potential to be realised.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: