Film Review: ‘Monsters: Dark Continent’

'Monsters: Dark Continent' Review: Sequel Switches

Giant aliens remain in the background while a new batch of bickering characters go about their business in this taxing 10-years-later follow-up.

The slippery, multi-tentacled creatures seen in Gareth Edwards’ “Monsters” have adapted to Earth’s harshest environments, migrating from their Central American infected zone to other parts of the planet in “Monsters: Dark Continent.” Not so much a sequel as another stultifying character drama set in a world overrun by aliens, this 10-years-later spinoff switches directors and genres, as first-timer Tom Green (building on experience from British TV’s “Misfits” and “Blackout”) helms a taxingly over-earnest war movie set in an unspecified Middle Eastern country, where American soldiers deal with insurgents while the menacing MTRs (as they’re now called) lumber about in the background.

Though the human characters from “Monsters” are long gone and only a modified version of the creatures remain, Green’s film should benefit from brand recognition worldwide, sparking international sales and audience curiosity for a film that otherwise wouldn’t much interest moviegoers. Genre shingle Vertigo Films was clever in that respect, transforming the shoestring sci-fier that launched Edwards’ career (he graduated directly to “Godzilla”) into a franchise, while preserving the notion that any number of pics — not to mention novels, games and other properties — could be created in this world, where the concept of mankind awkwardly coexisting with this invading species provides the throughline.

That approach was both the novelty and the frustration of “Monsters,” in which the monsters themselves were almost incidental, providing atmospheric and visual garnish for a badly acted road movie, in which a photojournalist went deep into territory overrun by the squid-like aliens to extract an endangered young woman. Whereas that film focused more on the couple’s budding sexual tension than any tangible extraterrestrial threat, Green and co-writer Jay Basu hew closer to the formula seen in pics like “Independence Day” and “Battle: Los Angeles,” in which U.S. troops are sent to deal with the aliens, albeit indirectly.

The squad in question hails from economically depressed Detroit, where Michael Parkes (Sam Keeley) decides to enlist because, in his words, it’s better than dealing crack. Before shipping out to the godforsaken desert, Parkes goes on a hookers-and-booze bonding binge with gung-ho buddies Frankie Maguire (Joe Dempsie) and Shaun Williams (Parker Sawyers) — a repulsive display of tough-guy machismo that is swiftly undermined by the horrors of actual combat, in the face of which Parkes spends much of the film crying.

On the ground in who-knows-where (actually Jordan, but the movie inexplicably opts to remain unspecific), the men are berated into shape by Sgt. Noah Frater (Johnny Harris), one of those service-tour junkies, like Jeremy Renner’s character in “The Hurt Locker,” who can’t readjust to civilian life and therefore keeps saddling up to fight again. The mission itself has little to do with the aliens, as Frater’s team is being sent into hostile territory to extract four American soldiers — a setup that might have yielded a thrilling hybrid between “War of the Worlds” and “Saving Private Ryan,” if Green had anything approaching Spielberg’s storytelling instincts.

With the exception of an intriguing scene in which an eager crowd places bets on a dogfight between a pit bull and a smaller MTR, the humans seldom interact directly with these enormous E.T.s. Just imagine how dull “Jurassic Park” would be if the dinosaurs were seen exclusively in the far distance, as the paleontological safari intended, rather than endangering the characters in close proximity.

Who knows why Green chose to keep the alien encounters at such a far remove, other than to preserve the formula established by Edwards in “Monsters.” Though the sequel features far more footage of the giant beasts, including a spectacular nighttime scene in which one of the bioluminescent creatures ejects phosphorescent spores into the desert sky, the story remains stubbornly focused on relatively uninteresting human concerns.

While other military divisions bomb the bejesus out of the MTRs, Frater and his men are tasked with managing the Arab locals. These insurgents find the American presence as unwelcome as the alien one, setting IEDs and taking captives in a way that recalls contempo war movies (like “Lone Survivor”), whose style has clearly inspired the pic’s gritty, oversaturated aesthetic and deafening rock score (this on top of its already overkill Dolby Atmos sound design).

Subtract the MTRs and what remains is an intense, in-your-face study of desert combat dynamics, as Green concentrates his attention on how different personalities hold up under pressure. Harris, who plays Frater, is a cut above his co-stars in terms of depth and range, delving into the complex psychology of a battle-hardened officer. The trouble is that his mission simply isn’t very engaging, and one can’t help feeling that these soldiers are ignoring the 500-ton elephant in the room.

After 16 years on Earth, the aliens evidently aren’t going anywhere. In “Monsters,” these slimy cephalopods were mostly seen in or near water, and though not enough time has passed for them to evolve (at least, not in the Darwinian sense, where useful genetic mutations are passed along to their offspring), they appear to have adapted quite well to their new terrain. Designed by Christian Bull and convincingly brought to life by visual-effects whiz Seb Barker, the creatures look more Lovecraftian than ever and have even spawned other species, including a race of seemingly benign horse-like herds whose elimination would be as great a tragedy as the buffalo massacre — but that’s clearly a story for another “Monsters” movie.

Film Review: 'Monsters: Dark Continent'

Reviewed at Sitges Film Festival, Oct. 11, 2014. (Also in London Film Festival.) Running time: 119 MIN.

Production

(U.K.) A Vertigo Films (in U.K.) release presented with Solar Film Partners of a Vertigo Films production in association with 42. (International sales: Protagonist Pictures, London.) Produced by Alan Niblo, James Richardson, Rory Aitken, Ben Pugh. Executive producers, Gareth Edwards, Scoot McNairy.

Crew

Directed by Tom Green. Screenplay, Jay Basu, Green. Camera (color, widescreen), Christohper Ross; editor, Richard Graham; music, Neil Davidge; art director, Marwan Khair; sound (Dolby Atmos), Ian Maclagan; visual effects supervisor, Seb Barker; visual effects producer, Sara Rebuli; visual effects, the Post Republic U.K., Minimo; creature effects supervisor, Maurizio Giglioli; creature designer, Christian Bull; fight coordinator, Patrick Potochick; stunt coordinator, Jude Poyer; assistant director, Diana Cheklich; casting, Alexa Fogel.

With

Johnny Harris, Sam Keeley, Joe Dempsie, Kyle Soller, Nicholas Pinnock, Parker Sawyers. (English, Arabic dialogue)

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  1. Cesar says:

    Are you so called critics over the fact that this series is not about aliens or monsters? Can you look a little beyond your idiotic assholes? Go beyond the obvious please. Great series by the way, and for me, Dark Continent was even better then the first one, so sad it did so bad at the box office.

    • Lee Stringer says:

      Quite curious.

      Seems very clear to me the filmmaker’s intent was that the monster,in this movie was war itself–or at the very least the thing we become when we give in to war.

      Ergo their presence only in the background. As metaphors.

      In fact my take on the film was that, while it was an interesting effort–the looming aliens in the back of the frame the “threat” of what war brings about–was jus too heavy-handed. Apparently, when it comes to today’s moviegoers and critics–weaned as they are on a steady grind of blockbuster popcorn opera–I am dead wrong. Heavy-handed as it was, no one seemed to get the patently overstated point.

      I mean, come on! Soon as the newbie recruit made his peace with the local natives\ (in this case a requisite hot female love interest, which only served to undermine the point) the hard, ugly, off-putting creatures joyously morph into Disneycolor flourish of ascending jellyfish. My thought when seeing this was “Do you really need to hit us over the head like that to make your point?”

      Apparently the answer is “yes, and even harder.”

      At the end of the day? A courageous attempt at doing something other than pandering to a genre audience’s expectations, but ultimately not quite confident enough in itself to fully get there.

  2. KXG says:

    trite and boring. the characters are neither multi-dimensional nor likable. feels like the brain-baby of 60’s war-protester with its ham-handed “humans are irredeemably evil, violent creatures who wage endless war on anyone and everything, especially brown people, so war is bad mmm’kay?” message. every bit of the shoe-horned in 8-mile hoodrat garbage just threatens to split the seams of an already bloated farce. PC thuggery, white guilt, anti-war and pointless bleeding heart tripe spill from every orifice of this shambling shade of its predecessor like cinematic ebola.

  3. Keith says:

    It seems that the point has been missed. In both movies the ‘monsters’ are front and centre on screen. The alien creatures on the other hand are mostly harmless in the background. In Dark Continent the aliens never harm anything unless being attacked, by pit bulls or helicopters. Whilst the titular monsters bomb cities, school busses full of children etc.

    Neither films are about alien invasion.

    • vladislav III says:

      thought was actually a very good film ! people are missing the point ! the “monsters ” are`nt the cephalopods ! and calling it “pc tripe” shows an intelligence level slightly lower than that of the average obama voter !

  4. Matthew Hunt says:

    I’m watching this right now…it is disappointing that the aliens are really not much a part of the movie. However, they are NOT invaders, it was a sample return mission that brought with it these aliens. I don’t remember (and can’t find) what moon / planet they came from…as for their rapid evoltion, it doesn makes some sense. If these creatures where from, say, Titan or Europa, both of those places are quite cold. Far slower metabolisms. Suddenly they get 1000x food and energy that they have ever had, they would evolve quickly (possibly, close enough for a movie lol)…

  5. Floyd Young says:

    Nothing but garbage. It seems they took the scrip to a middle east war flick and wrote a few alien glimpses in on the side. To top it off it doesn’t even make it as a decent war movie.

  6. kawshik says:

    It’s so frustrating. ..why make a monster movie if they simply meant nothing. …remove the entire monster scenario, from the movie, and it won’t matter at all.

    • John says:

      Pathetic. Wasted $10.99 to watch in On-Demand, I wish I could get a refund of $10.98. You see more of the “Monsters” in the trailer then in the whole 2 hour movie.

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