Giant bioluminescent space creatures dominated the horizon but not the plot in Gareth Edwards’ breakthrough film, Monsters. Shot run-and-gun style by Edwards and a tiny crew, Monsters was an unusual blend of road-trip drama with light touches of sci-fi; its focus was the growing friendship between a photograph journalist (Scoot McNairy) and his boss’s daughter (Whitney Able) travelling across a Central America ravaged not so much by the title’s Lovecraftian kaiju but by a military intent on keeping them well away from American soil.
Monsters’ success saw Edwards move to Hollywood, where he’s so far headlined the daddy of all kaiju movies, Godzilla, and now set to head up another pop culture giant – the Star Wars spin-off, Rogue One. This left production company Vertigo with a potential franchise on its hands, so step forward Tom Green (TV’s Misfits, Blackout) to direct the sequel Monsters: Dark Continent, which he’s co-written with Jay Basu (the writer behind the forthcoming Metal Gear Solid movie).
Set a decade after the events of the previous film, Dark Continent sees its star-born monsters spread to the Middle East. In an attempt to reduce their numbers, the US military has installed itself in an unnamed Middle Eastern country, where it regularly carpet-bombs the desert – resulting in lots of giant monster carcasses, but also terrible casualties among ordinary people. The military therefore fights a war on two fronts, as it combats insurgents armed with RPGS and improvised explosives as well as the monsters thundering around in the desert.
Bearded, battle-scarred Sergeant Frater (Johnny Harris) leads a quintet of raw recruits in this dusty theatre of war – among them Private Michael Parkes (Sam Keeley), a poor Detroit kid who’s keen to fight for his country but unprepared for the horrors that await him. When an early mission goes awry, Frater, Parkes and the rest of the unit find themselves trapped in the desert, low on ammo and completely surrounded, both by insurgents and a bellowing herd of creatures.
Similar in tone to modern war films like Lone Survivor and Black Hawk Down, Dark Continent also alludes to the war-is-hell moodiness of Apocalypse Now; one early bit of narration – “We wanted a war, and we were going to get one” – even paraphrases a famous line uttered by Martin Sheen in that 1979 classic. Green and cinematographer Christopher Ross go for a bold, bleached-out look of white sand and black billowing clouds of smoke; it’s a world away from the world Edwards created, where nature’s greenery seemed on the cusp of reclaiming what had been devastated by humanity’s bombs and monsters’ tentacles. Dark Continent’s all the stronger for claiming its own, often bleak look and feel.
But where Monsters placed its characters in the foreground and the themes in the background, Dark Continent unwisely switches the two. The notion that we might be more cruel and violent than the monsters was present in Monsters, but left as topic to be discovered rather than the film’s driving force – Monsters was led by the burgeoning relationship between its odd-couple protagonists. In Dark Continent, the war-is-hell theme is placed centre stage, leaving the characters to trail gloomily in its wake – all this in spite of some excellent performances from Harris and Keeley. Harris, in particular, puts in a volatile, convincing turn, which left me wishing we could learn more about the psychologically tortured character he inhabits.
Meanwhile, Private Parks and his friends are introduced as a bunch of randy, hard-drinking lads in the opening ten minutes, which doesn’t exactly give us much insight into the nuances of their characters. Green and Basu’s script allows little time for conversation, with a string of crises leaving the soldiers alternately screaming imperatives at each other or hunkering down to ponder why they signed up in the first place.
Green is, however, excellent at atmospherics. There’s some recurring, sometimes captivating symbolism about parenthood, children and how the young are the most vulnerable casualties of war. It’s an admirable message, but Dark Continent sometimes feels like it’s aching for a greater meaning that it can’t quite reach.
As a purely visual exercise, however, Dark Continent is surprisingly polished. That it deals with a small unit of soldiers may be a sign of its low budget, but the film looks a good deal more expensive than its predecessor – it’s a remarkable achievement, given that Dark Continent was apparently made for roughly the same amount of money as Monsters. Green’s handling of battle sequences is highly effective, and he brings an unvarnished, harsh quality to the film that is entirely at odds with Edwards’ more gentle, Spielbergian approach. The monsters are once again melancholy and majestic – the movie even introduces a couple of new types, including some smaller ones which sprint across the Iraqi desert like otherworldly gazelles.
Thinly drawn though Monsters: Dark Continent’s characters are, it’s worth seeing on a big screen for the quality of its fearsome visuals and sound.
Monsters: Dark Continent is out in UK cinemas on the 1st May.
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