When Gareth Edwards’ original Monsters came out in 2010, it was a welcome breath of fresh air for the sci-fi genre – an atypically thoughtful and atmospheric drama about two humans falling in love and learning to wonder at the otherworldly beauty of a strange new world being born around them. Shot on a shoestring budget with visual effects Edwards created in his bedroom, it was a marvelous, unexpected film that left you thinking.
That’s what makes it all the more soul-crushing to report that Monsters: Dark Continent, though impressively directed by Tom Green (Edwards moved onto the big-budget Godzilla, the awfulness of which I’ll condemn until my dying breath), bears resemblance to its predecessor in name alone. In terms of narrative, genre, tone and structure, it’s both drastically different and woefully inferior, to such a degree that it’s actually hobbled by bearing the Monsters brand.
Picking up ten years after the events of Monsters, Dark Continent follows a group of U.S. soldiers deployed to an inexplicably unspecific Middle Eastern country. The monsters, once contained to infected zones in the Mexico-U.S. border region, have gone worldwide, and people around the globe have largely adjusted to their presence. In the war-torn, sun-scorched Middle East, however, they’ve just added to the unrest, and a new insurgency has worked to plunge the area into further lawlessness.
The new recruits, including soft-spoken Parkes (Sam Keeley, all traumatized anguish) and three of his best buddies, enter the battlefield with broad grins, ready to serve their country and become real men, only to find themselves under the command of Frater (Johnny Harris, committed to the role but undermined by thin scripting), a man whose had his brains fried and nerves shred by decades of combat.
Soon after downing their first monster, the soldiers are sent out into the desert to recover a stranded group of soldiers from a distant village. The largely peripheral mission, of course, goes haywire. As bodies start to pile up, and Parkes is beset on all sides by the arid climate, hostile Arab forces, his commander’s instability and the occasional monster, he is confronted with realities of conflict more brutal than he had anticipated.
If Monsters used its extraterrestrial visitors to tackle immigration, Dark Continent attempts to use them to address the savagery of modern warfare. Whereas the first film was somewhat smart in how it turned monsters into metaphors, though, this sequel has all the subtlety of an AK-47. In the crucible of combat, men become the real monsters. For a war movie, that’s a very, very standard theme. One might think that, with alien life suddenly added into the equation, the film could find an interesting way to approach it. No such luck – Dark Continent wallows in clichés, from the grating voiceover that kicks things off on a sour note to the loss-of-innocence arc Parkes undergoes and the fact that almost all of the Middle Eastern characters in the movie are one-note sadists, existing only as dastardly targets to be dispatched with a burst of gunfire.
It’s beyond understanding why Green (who co-wrote the script) and writer Jay Basu thought that fans of Monsters would go for a full-blooded war movie with a little more background CGI than most, even though that is really what’s on offer here. Unlike Monsters, where the titular creatures played a tangible role in moving the plot forward and influencing the actions of the characters, Dark Continent relegates its monsters to the scenery, meaning that almost all the action on screen involves not monster-on-man carnage but numbing firefights between U.S. soldiers and Middle Eastern insurgents. The big beasties could be entirely excised with almost no repercussions for the story.
Green likely thought he was upholding the formula of Edwards’ Monsters by keeping the aliens at arm’s length, but failing to include them in any meaningful aspect just prevents the follow-up from expanding the series’ mythology, as it was supposed to. It’s almost as if the filmmakers accidentally remade The Hurt Locker with worse actors, realized they left out the aliens and stuck some in the background during post.
And so, despite its name, Monsters: Dark Continent is much more a war movie than a sci-fi flick. It studiously abides by every trope of that genre, throwing in raucous pre-deployment partying (the only women for almost the entire length are of the G-string-clad variety), vaguely jingoistic hoo-hahing and a half-hearted depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. At every turn, whenever the story seems like it could go in an interesting direction, someone spews out another stock phrase and it’s back to basics. Green and Basu appear to have something to say about the horrors of war, and about how no one escapes from it unscathed, but they belabor every point to a stultifying degree. How can a movie that features a dogfight between a pitbull and a tentacled creature from outer space possibly be this dull?
It’s worth noting that Green displays a proficiency for action and a strong eye for detail behind the camera, suggesting that he could follow Edwards’ trajectory to the big time. And the striking, faded-out cinematography, by Christopher Ross, is often stunning. The two create some incredible scenes that seem out of place given the film’s tiny budget, from a haunting image of a soldier’s face reflected in the pooling blood of his dead comrade to a transcendent display of bioluminescence in which one monster rains glowing spores down across the desert. Those eye-catching shots aside, though, the two have had their talents wasted on a wholly tedious and unpleasant narrative. No matter how gritty or grimy its action is, Monsters: Dark Continent can’t make up for how it sidelines its main attractions and fails to provide an appealing alternative. The sequel isn’t a death knell for this budding franchise – but if there’s another film, it has some major course correction to do.