Four years ago, Gareth Edwards‘ “Monsters” sent a rocket into the indie sci-fi scene. Made on a tiny budget, with a tiny crew, and with visual effects completed personally by the filmmaker, it was a strange and ingenious picture, a sort of “Before Sunrise” at the end of the world, that proved that in this day and age, your imagination was pretty much the limit in terms of what you could achieve with a low-budget film. It launched the careers of both star Scoot McNairy, and Edwards, who graduated from a tiny-budgeted film to blockbuster “Godzilla” this summer, and is heading to the first “Star Wars” spin-off film.
“Monsters” wasn’t a giant hit, but it made enough money that British backers Vertigo Films were keen to press ahead with a sequel, and they’ve finally got their wish, with “Monsters: Dark Continent” premiering this week at the BFI London Film Festival. Retaining only the titular creatures, which get a few more iterations this time around, the film instead takes the universe into very different territory, with a group of American soldiers in a war-torn Middle East. Much-touted shorts and TV filmmaker Tom Green (not that one; he’s best known for cult series “Misfits“) at the helm. On this evidence, he certainly has the chops to follow Edwards, an executive producer here, into blockbusterland, but his feature debut is a long, long way from the home-run of his predecessor.
It’s some time on from the events of “Monsters,” and another Infected Zone has sprung up, in a Middle Eastern country referred to only as “the Middle East.” The American military try to contain the creatures with airstrikes, but their wonky aim has caused civilian casualties, further alienating locals who were presumably fairly alienated before, and who are becoming increasingly hostile insurgents. Into this burning hot hellhole come a group of soldiers from Detroit: Sensitive Cypher (Sam Keeley from “What Richard Did“), Best Friend Cypher (Joe Dempsie, the blacksmith bastard in “Game Of Thrones“), Dickhead Cypher (Kyle Soller, so good in “The Keeping Room“) and New Dad Cypher (Parker Sawyers, who had a small part in “Zero Dark Thirty“).
The quartet of lifelong friends are deployed, and fall under the command of Frater (Johnny Harris, from “War Horse,” “The Fades” and “Snow White And The Huntsman“). After taking down their first creature, they’re given a major mission: four other troops are MIA in the Infected Zone, and the unit are sent to get them back. Things, as you imagine, go south from there.
If the first “Monsters” was a sci-fi take on Richard Linklater, the second seems to be riffing on Kathryn Bigelow, with the look and locations of the film feeling like a blend of “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty.” That’s a high bar to aim for, but the film’s visuals do a pretty good job of aping the Oscar-winning director’s recent style. The bleached-out photography by Christopher Ross is stunning, and Green has a real handle on how to shoot action.
In fact, it’s a very strong audition for bigger gigs, which will surely come. Green had a much bigger budget than Edwards to play with, but we’re still talking millions rather than tens or hundreds of millions, and yet it looks like a far, far more expansive scope and canvas than the money spent. There are money shots here that can compete with summer movies that cost twenty times as much. In fact, with the seamless blend of action and (mostly) impressive CGI, it doesn’t so much recall the film that inspired it as it reminds you of “District 9.” The only problem? Everything else.
The issues begin at the opening, with some incredibly creaky voiceover from Keeley, the worst, most blindingly obvious possible use of the device, pointless and inelegant. This narration doesn’t even lead to much insight into the characters. The cast are committed, but none except Harris are given the chance to make much of an impression, with Keeley’s lead basically just looking teary-eyed throughout. The elder statesman of the cast does have more of a character to play, but he’s also hamstrung by being forced, by the screenplay, to turn on an emotional dime, with an inconsistent and sometimes baffling throughline.
As for the story they’re playing out, there isn’t much of one. It’s a point-to-point war movie of the kind we’ve seen plenty of times before, with almost every cliche from the genre playing out. In theory, the sci-fi mash-up could make things fresher, but for the most part, the actual monsters are irrelevant to what’s going on. Edwards’ original didn’t overuse them, but built a compelling world and made the creatures crucial to the actual goings on. Here, the filmmakers might as well have just added some CGI to the background of “The Hurt Locker” and called it a day.
Of course, there is seemingly some political subtext at work. As the film makes clangingly clear in the final fifteen minutes, it’s a movie about how indiscriminate bombing by the U.S. is likely creating more insurgents than it’s preventing, but firstly, it’s pretty heavy-handed (although admirable) stuff, and secondly, the equation of the titular monsters with the people of Afghanistan and Iraq is pretty questionable, especially given that 90% of the Middle Eastern characters in the film are sadistic Call Of Duty shoot-em-up villains, existing only to be gleefully and violently dispatched.
That’s not the only problem with the film’s politics. It literally takes an hour and forty-five minutes into the (overlong) two hour running time before we see a woman who’s lucky enough to have both a) a line, and b) her clothes on. Even the wife of Sawyers’ character is in her underwear when giving birth. Instead, we get an early parade of topless women as the boys have their final night at home, a disembodied, nagging voice over the phone, and then, finally, a Middle Eastern woman who speaks near the end (her single line goes unsubtitled, as if the film needed to prove further how little it cared about her). Complaining about the lack of women in a war film might seem like a futile task, but given that “Monsters: Dark Continent” is set in a near-future where monsters roam the earth, making one member of the squad a woman, or at least putting some clothes on the ones we do see, doesn’t feel like too much to ask.
The result is a sour, tedious and derivative film that doesn’t just prove disappointing in its own right, it actively makes us resent the first film retroactively for inspiring it. There’s some impressive visuals at work, but Green doesn’t get an easy pass, given that he co-authored the screenplay. If more thought is put into the material he works with on his next gig, he could be set for big things, but “Monsters: Dark Continent” is far from an ideal way to kick off a career. [D]