Review: Monsters: Dark Continent

Gareth Edwards’ 2010 word-of-mouth success Monsters was a great little treat (one that only narrowly missed my top 50 movies of the decade so far countdown this past weekend). A love story and road movie with a supernatural life lesson thrown in for good measure, Edwards busied himself in the aftermath with his colossal, lamentable Godzilla picture. So did anyone really expect the bizarre appearance of this belated, superfluous sequel? Monsters: Dark Continent is brought to us by Tom Green, most prominently known for directing episodes of UK Channel 4’s asbo-superhero drama Misfits. The action relocates from Central America to the Middle East. No original cast members return. So in all honesty it’s best not to think of this as a sequel at all, in fact. Approach it more as another film set in the same universe. A sort of strange coincidence, even.

Off the bat Green’s film feels less deftly blueprinted than Edwards’, employing lumpen narration to speak for central character Michael (Sam Keeley) after a set of loud and custom-ordered opening titles lead us to a Detroit prelude. A bunch of kids about to get shipped out overseas. The suggestion is that Dark Continent is going to be a more militaristic inspection of the alien entities featured previously. Michael laments in potty-mouthered whispers about wanting to make something of his life, prove everybody wrong, etc, etc. Before leaving for combat he witnesses a dog fight; albeit one where it’s dog v alien. Michael notes that it’s a fight where everybody loses. At this early interval it seems we’re already being asked to question how we feel about the film’s titular menaces. Those who saw the first film will inherently have some sympathy for the extraterrestrials following that movie’s final scene. Newcomers may find such sympathies need to evolve over the course of the film. I guess it also depends how you feel about dogs…

At least, this is what I thought at the time, assuming, somewhat naively, that Monsters: Dark Continent would in some way attempt to evolve what had gone before. In fact, the nature of the aliens and their relation to this film’s human protagonists is basically non-existent. Edwards’ movie kept them in the peripheries, sure, but they complimented the unfolding the drama between his two leads. Green’s film includes them because, one comes to worry, there’d be little to justify or validate his film without them.

Moving the action to the Middle East pointedly asks for the US’s recent military history to be called into question as a direct parallel. Are we about to witness a two-hour sermon on getting involved in questionable conflicts for the wrong reasons with confused exit strategies? The suspicion rises that this metaphor might be both a bit too thin and a bit too late to feel particularly relevant. Perhaps surprisingly, the ‘monsters’ are actually incidental to a new insurgency in the area. Human insurrection. Human combat. Yet the specifics of this conflict are conspicuously vague. Aside from the aforementioned opening narration shrugging them off as collateral damage, there’s no discernible political context. It feels like a flimsy excuse. Hell, we’re not even sure where this is all happening, especially. Michael and his unit encounter what is generally referred to as a ‘shitstorm’ in some anonymous wastelands and the film beds down in generic desert warfare action. The enemy just another bunch of dark skinned foreigners. Its lazy, xenophobic and not at all interesting.

Things go from bad to worse for poor Michael as the number of men in his unit diminish rapidly. Green shoots everything with handheld economy, ensuring that battles are kinetic and the continuity of carnage is easy to discern and follow. Cause and effect. And the actors do their best to play the part, sinking their teeth into what they’re given. But the characters are little more than cardboard. This is the main area in which Dark Continent truly falters, especially when set beside it’s predecessor. Very quickly the two films become, frankly, incomparable.

And while it’s good to see a sequel trying to ambitiously carve out its own identity, it’s far better if said sequel has an identity. Boxes are wearily ticked as the narrative trundles along; native-boy-in-need-of-help crisis, unexpected-IED crisis, prisoner-of-war crisis. Is Green getting meta on us? Showing us how cliché modern combat drama is by parading it’s most predictable tropes in front of us? When you start charitably wondering things like this it’s a sure sign that the movie is in trouble. I wanted Monsters: Dark Continent to be up to something more than it was. I wanted a reason to care again.

No such luck. Those who saw the first movie will feel cheated (you might as well digitally implant Edwards’ gangly beasties into the background of an episode of Orange Is The New Black and call that a sequel). Those dropping in at this installment will wonder, with great justification, frankly what all the fuss was about. To those people I strongly suggest hopping back five years. There’s a good movie waiting for you. Monsters: Dark Continent  is that curiously frustrating modern conundrum; a competently made movie in a technical sense, granted, but one with no real reason to exist. It doesn’t even know when to end, either. That last shot is weak and totally superfluous. All in all, a bit of a dud.

Score:  1.5

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