‘Meg 2’ and the Terrible Shark Movies We Love: What’s Next for Them?

For a brief, shining moment on Thursday, after the review embargo on Meg 2: The Trench had lifted and critics’ first caustic words about it had spilled forth onto the internet like so many fish guts, it boasted a 0 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Heavens parted; angels wept. Audiences, I imagine, readied themselves to go to the theaters for the singular phenomenon known as Barbenheimeg. (At least that’s what I did.) Nothing gold can stay, however, and within hours the rating had see-sawed, then settled at a more respectable 27 percent.

Still, the vast majority of critics had had their fill at the feeding frenzy. CNN: “Goes from Shark Week to shark weak.” IndieWire: “Bizarrely convoluted.” RogerEbert.com: “Dismally boring.” New York: “Should have been stupider.” Even my esteemed colleague, Nick Schager, was duly unimpressed, calling the movie’s premise “the height of idiocy.”

And you know what? They were all right. Even classily shorn of its definite article (they dropped the “the”; it’s cleaner), Meg 2 was never going to clean up at the critic’s desk. But a shark movie is nothing if not indestructibly review-proof. By the close of its first weekend in theaters, Meg 2 had outperformed expectations, landing in second place at the box office.

A picture of the Meg in Meg 2: The Trench

Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

The experts over at The Hollywood Reporter called this a “decent start, albeit a significant drop” from the performance of Meg 2’s older sibling, The Meg, which in 2018 became the largest live-action shark movie opening ever at the box office. Take that, Steven, the Warner Bros. execs probably said at the time, uncorking the champagne before getting back to conspiring new ways not to pay their actors and writers fairly.

Speaking of hot strike summer, this season should have also been, for all intents and purposes, a hot shark summer. Jason Statham returned to the big screen to kick some serious shark butt for us. The indomitable Sharknado turned 10. (Jaws turned… the big 48?) A documentary called Sharksploitation, taking stock of and celebrating the sharkissance in cinema, splashed down on the streaming service Shudder a few weeks ago. Discovery Channel just had its highest-rated “Shark Week” in three years.

But something in the salt air feels off. Maybe it’s that Meg 2 put numbers on the board that, while respectable, have me worried about diminishing returns of future sequels. Maybe it’s that, for all its winsome charm and general final-act badassery, I have to admit that Meg 2 didn’t know what it wanted to be. Maybe it’s that we haven’t had an annual Sharknado entry since, well, the last Sharknado came out. (2018, for those of you keeping score at home.)

“Since Syfy stopped doing Sharknado, that kind of movie has slowly been disappearing,” Stephen Scarlata, Sharksploitation’s director, who can talk about shark movies like a winemaker appreciating the vintage of a certain year, told The Daily Beast’s Obsessed. “Now we’re seeing more serious shark movies again.”

A quadrant of stills with pictures from the four Sharknado movies

Clockwise, starting from the top left, stills from Sharknado, Sharknado 2: The Second One, Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!, and Sharknado: The Fourth Awakens.

Everett Collection/Syfy

Meg 2 feels like it’s torn between those two worlds—the silly and the serious. It suffers as a result of its dithering, but its tonal rift also makes it a harbinger. I suspect a shark movie apotheosis is upon us, and that we are teetering on the edge of some great underwater cliff that determines where the subgenre will go next.

In other words: A shark movie vibe shift is coming. Will any of us survive it?

You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Movie

The subgenre, at its toothy best, has thrummed with life and possibility. Every shark movie is someone’s favorite shark movie, from Ouija Shark (“You’re gonna need a bigger board”) to House Shark (“You’re gonna need a bigger house”). The weirder and wackier you can make your premise—the crazier the shark—the more likely you are to have a cult hit on your hands.

It’s all about the shark these days, which is a far cry from where we started. The shark in Jaws, “Bruce” to his friends, spends roughly four minutes on-screen. Jaws is about a killer shark, yes, but that shark still has to cede territory to Big Themes like American machismo, public distrust in government, and the inevitable consequences of capitalism. Also, famously, the shark was broken.

A picture of Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Shaw  and 'Bruce' in a scene from the film 'Jaws' directed by Steven Spielberg.

As an almost inadvertent byproduct, Bruce had audiences in 1975 shitting bricks, to put it in technical terms. “There is no way that a bather who has seen or heard of the movie won’t think of a great white shark when he puts his toe in the ocean,” producer Richard Zanuck crowed to Time that year. The movie, the magazine reported, had “sent a delicious shiver along the nation’s beaches.”

With all due respect to Megan, as her friends call her, The Meg and its sequel haven’t exactly inspired the same level of sharkmania. She has just under 15 minutes of screentime in Meg 2 (I know this because I brought a stopwatch into the theater); I spent all of it wanting to give her a kiss on the snout and tell her she’s doing a great job. I love her, but she’s just not scary. Her CGI, yes, is a little rubbery. Her havoc, when she wreaks it, is not all that bloody. Jason Statham, the real villain of the movie, punches her in the face.

So if Meg 2 can’t shore up a good scare, can it make audiences laugh? That was the mark of the era that came after the fear-driven epoch that Jaws ushered in. By the turn of the century, the franchise had become a parody of itself, and nominally serious shark thrillers like Deep Blue Sea included scenes where the monster bursts out of the water and eats Samuel L. Jackson as he’s delivering a rousing speech.

Studios smelled blood in the water, and began to ratchet up the absurdity of their creature features. But it wasn’t until 2009, when Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus was put out by mockbuster power player The Asylum, that the shark really hit the fan.

“That’s what flipped the switch,” Scarlata said. “It was a great thing. That’s when you started getting Sand Sharks and Avalanche Sharks, Two-Headed Shark, Sharktopus. And then Sharknado came out. That just blew the gates open.”

A picture of Sharkenstein from the movie

Courtesy of The Asylum and Syfy, television viewers in 2013 were treated to sequences where a square-jawed protagonist, Fin (Fin!), shoots falling sharks out of the sky with a handgun to clear a path for a helicopter. At one point, he gets swallowed by a shark, and cuts his way out with a chainsaw. Sharks come through windows, terrorize school buses full of children, and climb ropes with their teeth. It is, as one critic put it at the time, “damn fine American entertainment for a Thursday night in July.”

It also spawned five direct sequels, including one where Richard Kind appears as a washed-up baseball player named Harland “The Blaster” McGuinness and hits a shark home-run. But besides that, many, if not most, of the dozens of shark movies that have come out in the years since owe their existence directly to Sharknado. A non-exhaustive selection might include:

Ghost Shark; Piranha Sharks; Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda; Zombie Sharks; 90210 Shark Attack; Shark Killer; Gobblin’ Shark; Roboshark; Shark Exorcist; Shark Babes; Shark Lake; Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre; Tsharknami; Dam Sharks!; Ice Sharks; Planet of the Sharks; Geyser Sharks; Ozark Sharks; Sharkenstein; Atomic Shark; Land Shark; Empire of the Sharks; Mississippi River Sharks; Trailer Park Shark; Toxic Shark; Mecha Shark vs. Monster Seahorse; Santa Jaws; Nightmare Shark; 6-Headed Shark Attack; Sky Sharks; Big Shark; Sharks of the Corn; Ninja vs. Shark; and Shark Side of the Moon.

A picture of Ouija Shark from the movie

I could have made up any of those titles. (In fact, I did—four are fake. Hint: Sharkansas Women’s Prison Massacre is absolutely real.) A winning formula had been discovered, and the mindless eating machine that is the shark movie industry was going to gorge itself.

It helped that the constraints of the made-for-TV medium mandated your shark movie take a certain shape. In Sharksploitation, directors who have worked with Syfy and The Asylum describe it: eight acts, allowing for seven commercial breaks, with each act including at least one “major gag” and one “minor gag.”

This structure allowed the outlandish kills to continue apace. In 3-Headed Shark Attack, for example, the titular beast devours seven people in the first five minutes. A total of 32 people, including Conan O’Brien, die in Sharktopus vs. Pteracuda. According to one intrepid data analyst, an eye-popping 327 people die in Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No!

By my tally, though Meg 2’s kill count clocks in somewhere around a more modest five dozen or so, which begs the question: What does it do with all that extra screentime?

It certainly isn’t spent leaning into the inherent camp of its premise. Instead, it spends the first 90 minutes working up the courage to do what Sharks of the Corn and Dam Sharks! knew to do from the outset. The final act of Meg 2 is set on the aptly titled Fun Island, where the movie can finally let it rip. The camera is placed inside the shark’s mouth as it chomps down on screaming beachgoers. One of the megs (!!) tangles with a giant octopus as vicious dino-dogs overrun the island. Statham karate-kicks a human enemy into a giant shark’s mouth in a beautiful example of interspecies cooperation.

A picture of the Shark Exorcist from the movie

To get to Fun Island, however, Meg 2 seems to be under the impression that it has to lay some pretty joyless groundwork first. Before Statham gets to do a flip on a jet ski, he has to trudge across a vast undersea trench, seemingly in real time. Then he has to deal with a rogue underwater mining operation (because capitalism), and swim sans suit at a depth of 25,000 feet (because sinuses?). None of this is fun.

What gives? One theory I have is that Meg 2’s predecessor emerged in cinemas at precisely the right time, if a little unsteady on its feet after spending two decades in development hell.

In 2016, when The Meg began filming, the respectable killer shark was just starting to make a big screen comeback. The Shallows, a Blake Lively vehicle about a surfer stuck on a rock (it’s better than it sounds), hoovered up $119 million at the box office on a $17 million budget. The next summer, 47 Meters Down added claustrophobia to the mix, and took in $40 million against a $5.5 million budget. Suddenly, A24 was making noises on social media about wanting to do its own shark movie.

A diptych showing stills from The Shallows and 47 Meters Down

47 Meters Below (left) and The Shallows (right).

Courtesy of Everett

The Meg, in comparison, is not a serious shark movie. (It occasionally feints at solemnity, such as when Statham’s character, whose name is Jonas or Jonah or something, growls, “We did what people always do. Discover and then destroy.”) But Scarlata thinks it took an unexpectedly big bite out of the box office precisely because it wasn’t like the others.

“We had these two big, serious, theatrical shark movies come out,” he said. “And now [The Meg] comes out, and it’s time to have fun again. You can only be serious for so long.”

Perhaps overwhelmed by its own success, though, the franchise has blinked and miscalculated with its second entry, taking too many cues from the sterner shark fare to recently come out of the mid-budget world. Luckily, though, they have plenty of opportunities to recalibrate and try again—there are six more Meg sequels in the book series that inspired the film, including one called Meg: Hell’s Aquarium.

And even if Megan isn’t your kind of girl, the wonderful thing about the shark movie industry is that, like another creature I know, it keeps moving forward. Scanning the headlines like an unassuming bather might scan the horizon, you can already see the fins slicing through the water.

A quick overview: The director behind Deep Blue Sea is working on a movie called Deep Water with Kiss frontman Gene Simmons. Netflix has an “elevated” French genre picture in the works. Alphas, a movie where Sam Worthington trains orcas to fight sharks, is reportedly in pre-production. And, as always, there’s a plethora of low-budget schlock headed our way, with Apex Predators 2: The Spawning and Sharks N Da Hood looking like particular highlights.

Who knows what mayhem and madness these projects could bring us? We’ll always have Sharknado, but I think what happens next will be just as thrilling, if not more so. We’re living in the midst of a golden age of shark movies. Anything could happen, no one is safe, and anyone can—and should—seek out their particular flavor of fist-to-fin, mano a mako action. Are you not entertained?

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