'Monsters: Dark Continent': London Review

Monsters: Dark Continent Still - H 2014
Courtesy of London Film Festival

Monsters: Dark Continent Still - H 2014

An absorbing but uneven sequel 

Tom Green takes over the directing reins from Gareth Edwards for this Mideast-set follow-up to 2010's 'Monsters'

Revisiting the fictional universe created in 2010's Monsters, wherein massive extraterrestrials have invaded earth to terraform it for their own purposes, the absorbing but uneven Monsters: Dark Continent features entirely new characters. The title directs viewers to assume its story is set in Africa, the dark continent of yore, but the environment looks unmistakably like the Middle East (it was filmed in Jordan) and there's no missing the allusions, despite the futuristic setting, to current U.S. conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The misdirection is apt given the movie starts out like a gung-ho recruitment commercial and turns into something more liberal and ambivalent.

Commercially, this is going to be tricky. Despite the American accents displayed, nearly everyone in the main cast is actually British (it's a U.K. production). It wouldn't be surprising if it earns most of its cash locally, as did the first Monsters movie, which despite its cult reputation only accumulated $4 million worldwide but still earned writer-director Gareth Edwards (an executive producer here only) the recent Godzilla reboot. Dark Continent ticks genre-entertainment boxes more easily than its predecessor, which may work in its favor, although it's a less interesting, less innovative piece of work.

It's been 10 years since the titular monsters, now called MTRs, arrived on Earth, and they're everywhere now. Moreover, they've evolved unfeasibly quickly by terrestrial standards, developing tougher hides to cope with arid conditions and spawning new either subspecies or intermediate stages (the cryptozoology is a bit vague) that range in dimension from tiny spores to dog- and horse-sized creatures to the 50-story-building–sized beasties first encountered in Monsters.

In the unnamed, Arabic-speaking desert country where the action is set, the American military has been trying to destroy as many as they can with airstrikes. However, local insurgents, infuriated by the unacceptable levels of collateral damage to civilians, have been using suicide bombs, IEDs and RPGs to attack the occupying forces.

A close-knit crew of four newly recruited buddies — narrator Parkes (Sam Keeley), his hard-partying homeboy Maguire (Joe Dempsie), plus the more narratively disposable Inkelaar (Kyle Soller) and new father Williams (Parker Sawyers) — make a frying pan-to-fire transition from Detroit, where they grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, to a region where the tracks have no right side. Battle-hardened Staff Sgt. Noah Frater (Johnny Harris, from London to Brighton), a PTSD-scarred conflict junkie in the vein of Jeremy Renner's antihero from The Hurt Locker, breaks the new boys in on a series of relatively minor deployments and trips to win hearts and minds with candy for the local kids, but then they're sent on a dangerous mission to rescue another squad lost deep behind enemy lines.

The mission goes wrong almost instantly as their convoy comes under attack by snipers and Williams is fatally injured, along with Frater's second-in-command and best friend Forrest (Nicholas Pinnock; some may find it a little uncomfortable that the film's only two black characters are culled so soon). The new recruits, who'd been such "America, f— yeah!" macho men previously, are reduced to sniveling wrecks. Frater, however, keeps his head by insisting they complete their mission no matter what. Eventually, just he and one other man are left, and they work their way deeper into enemy territory to confront the scale of destruction wrought by the occupying forces, summed up in the charred remains of a school bus, while a kindly tribe of Bedouins illustrates the locals' gentler side.

Throughout all this the aliens drift about in the background (creature design and VFX by Christian Bull and Sebastian Barker, respectively, are aces), but don't really pose any direct threat to human life. Some viewers with only hazy memories of the original film will start to wonder why they're supposed to be a problem in the first place. Eventually Green and Jay Basu's script starts to make this haziness a point in itself: The Americans fear the extraterrestrials just because they are alien to them, like the locals themselves. You could read the monsters as 500-foot walking multivalent metaphors, standing in variously for fundamentalism, insurgency, or more nebulous if implacable forces that threaten to erode the developed world's power base. Or then again, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, maybe sometimes a monster is just a monster.

Whatever the filmmakers' subtextual intentions may be, the film certainly gets stronger and more compelling as it goes on, thanks in part to intense emoting on the part of its cast, with Harris, Keeley and especially Soller standing out particularly. Richard Graham's editing is also especially praiseworthy for adding snap. The cinematography by Christopher Ross ably communicates with handheld work the requisite chaos of the battle scenes, although the dropped frame technique pioneered in Saving Private Ryan has been way overused at this point by other films. Tonally, the film is entirely different from its romantic-themed predecessor, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Production companies: A Vertigo Films and Solar Partners presentation of a Vertigo Films Production in association with 42
Cast:Johnny Harris, Sam Keeley, Joe Dempsie, Kyle Soller, Nicholas Pinnock, Parker Sawyers
Director: Tom Green
Screenwriters: Jay Basu, Tom Green

Producers: Rory Aitken, Ben Pugh
Executive producers: Gareth Edwards, Scoot McNairy
Director of photography: Christopher Ross
Production designer: Kristian Milsted
Editors: Richard Graham
Composer: Neil Davidge
Music supervisor: Lol Hammond
Casting: Lara Atalla
Sales: Protagonist Pictures

No rating, 118 minutes