'Monsters: Dark Continent' overstates its forced and shallow political significance
Monsters: Dark Continent RADiUS-TWC
Director: Tom Green
Screenplay: Tom Green and Jay Basu
Starring: Sam Keeley, Johnny Harris, Joe Dempsie, Parker Sawyers, Kyle Soller, Nicholas Pinnock and Sofia Boutella
Rated R / 1 hour, 59 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)
With a screening of Monsters: Dark Continent came a distinct feeling of déjà vu. It wasn't that the film was a mere carbon copy of its predecessor, Gareth Edwards' 2010 indie Monsters. (In fact, I'm impressed that the sequel at least tries to do its own thing instead of re-doing the first film.) No, it had more to do with the fact that I felt like I'd just seen this movie already.
A glitch in the matrix? Not quite - just a deflating realization that I was watching a more competent, marginally more entertaining version of a movie I just reviewed earlier this year, the pile of movie-shaped garbage called Alien Outpost. With that came the even more depressing realization that low-budget sci-fi movies are probably going to keep going back to this same dried-up well for the foreseeable future. The idea is this: a war between humans and aliens, but set primarily (or entirely) in the Middle East, so as to draw a flimsy parallel with the Iraq War and/or the War on Terror as a whole. Subtle? Well, maybe it doesn't have to be. Lazy? Without question.
I suspect this is only the beginning of aliens-as-a-metaphor-for-Middle-Eastern-terrorists films. I mean, all that's really required is a desert location (easy to find, and cheap!), some army fatigues and prop weapons, and a special-effects team. The one thing you apparently do not need, at least as far as these two movies are concerned, is a screenplay. In fairness, the original Monsters wasn't well-written, either (to the extent that it was written at all), but it made up for it with an emphasis on a naturalistic and bleak atmosphere of a civilization run aground by the arrival of unexpected visitors. Edwards' eye for visuals (which he put on more prominent display in last summer's Godzilla) and the somber way he approached the aliens' presence (and the way that presence affected human society) made the whole thing feel almost romantic. At least as far as alien occupations go.
Dark Continent, the sequel no one really wanted or expected in the first place, does away with the atmosphere (except in one key scene, which not coincidentally is the film's highlight), instead opting to be a pure military action movie. And while the soldiers' primary adversary is the creatures themselves - which get a lot more screen time this time around (not necessarily a good thing) - they also have to navigate the cultural landmines that come with the territory (literally), namely the villages in and around which they're staging their defense. There's a potentially interesting political dynamic in play - one occupation on top of another - but really it's just there as a lazy way to make the story seem urgently modern.
Writer/director Tom Green and co-writer Jay Basu double-down on that approach, too. Their central character, Michael (Sam Keeley) - who we get to know during the opening scenes as he and his buddies have a few nights of freedom and debauchery before shipping out - is a remnant of (where else?) Detroit, so you know damn well this is a Socially Relevant Film you're watching. Even that angle is thoroughly wasted, as the early hints that the film will explore these reluctant soldiers as a sort of lost generation - young men forced into service once society crumbled and opportunities dwindled - never pays off. It's a preamble that goes nowhere.
The film as a whole is confused about what it wants to do with its characters, alien or otherwise. Consider the treatment of Noah Frater (Johnny Harris), Michael's commanding officer, who begins as a sensitive, introspective, but tough-as-nails and authoritative figure, before the filmmakers turn him into a raving lunatic in the third act. Yes, sure, of course, it's the war that made him crazy, but that transition is never treated as an honest progression of Noah as a character. It's just a forced attempt at emotional and narrative conflict.
The thing is, Green is clearly not an untalented filmmaker; this is a nice-looking film, and indeed his best scene (which I alluded to above) matches Edwards' work (right down to the gorgeously bold swaths of light and color) in its ethereal grace. He firms up his own aesthetic from the beginning, with his washed-out imagery, roaming, fluid camerawork and confident wide-angle compositions. But ultimately this is all in the service of a lazy idea - one that uses its sociopolitical landscape as nothing more than set dressing. Hackneyed or not, there's still potential in the idea of an alien invasion premise being used as an allegory for real-world international conflicts. But you've got to actually have something you're trying to say with that allegory, and Monsters: Dark Continent most assuredly does not.