Infuriating and unnecessary sequel with an identity crisis.
by Andrew Brooker (@Brooker411)
A few years back, next to nobody director Gareth Edwards came out of nowhere and wowed almost everybody with his feature debut, Monsters. A super-low budget monster invasion movie with hardly a monster on screen. Praised for its direction and pretty well received by more-or-less everyone that saw it, it earned Edwards a place at the big boy table and a job resurrecting Godzilla for Warner Brothers last year. I didn’t watch Monsters, as much as it was recommended to me I just skipped past it. In fact, I only watched it a few days ago in preparation for watching its sequel and to be honest, I wasn’t wholly impressed. I thought it was a 90+ minute slog through to the end, with not an awful lot happening to keep me interested. I genuinely struggled to keep my eyes open and prayed for a swift end just so I could get to bed!
Now don’t get me wrong. I an definitely amongst those that praise Edwards’ technical skill. I’ve got some experience with the Autodesk and Adobe software he used to create his effects and I know what he done was no small feat. But all the skill in the world can’t make up for poor acting and generally rubbish story telling. The Cloverfield style of barely showing you anything of the monsters until towards the end is a decent tension builder when it’s done right. Unfortunately in this case, I just don’t think it worked. A symptom that, in my opinion, seems to be following Mr Edwards around seeing as my complaints about Godzilla were almost identical. But, before I go off on a tangent about my worries and what him being handed a Star Wars film could mean for that franchise, I’ll crack on with my thoughts on Monsters: Dark Continent.
Before I start though, a little insight. This is what happened before Dark Continent even hit pre-production (Disclaimer: this may not actually have happened, but without this explanation, there is no valid reason for the existence of this movie). It’s 2013, Iraq war movies are enjoying a massive comeback. Zero Dark Thirty, Lone Survivor etc. all enjoying a butt load of success and even getting Oscar wins. In the scramble to get the next big desert war movie, a couple of hack writers (said with no feeling of irony, whatsoever) let’s call them Tom and Jay, sell a treatment to Vertigo Films about a rag tag collection of Iraq war first-timers going on a mission to rescue a captured team of soldiers behind enemy lines. Now Jay and Tom, they work tirelessly, really working themselves ragged trying desperately to get all their ideas onto paper, never has a pair worked so hard for so long. After spending close to 45 minutes on their masterpiece, the dynamic writing duo head back to the production company, script in hand, proud as punch and ready to start filming. At this point, film company execs all start having heart palpitations. Their guys, their ticket to the Oscar party have spent half an hour writing a script that essentially says “Desert war tropes and nothing else” in crayon and Tom and Jay are over at the window trying to work out which side of the glass tastes the worst.
So at this point, any and all film producers are kicking these writers to the kerb, losing their rag at Tom and Jay and the way they lied about being able to string a sentence together or put thought, character or emotion into anything more interesting than a stale digestive. But not these guys, they’ve got a better idea. “We just made a load of free cash off that Monsters thing. Let’s use this script, add a load of those weird octopus things to it and call it Monsters 2”
And so, Monsters: Dark Continent was born.
Essentially, I don’t have to tell you much more than that. Dark Continent is set ten years after the first Monsters film. The alien visitors have spread from their comfortable little quarantine zone on the Mexican border and are now a worldwide issue. But they aren’t the enemy anymore. We have learned to live with them as just a part of out world, as part of our countryside like sheep and cows, humongous ones with tentacles! In this world we now share with the monsters, apparently we are still at war in Afghanistan and the United States military is still full of generic jarhead wannabes and pretty much every war movie stereotype soldier you can think of. There’s the guy that just had a baby before going on tour (although, the directors at least got a real baby so it’s got points over American Sniper) the guys that grew up together that are like brothers, the angry Sargent and the not quite so common angry black sidekick who thinks he’s R. Lee Ermey giving his angry speeches and trying to add some pretty flat and uninspiring comic relief.
After their first mission together is reasonably successful, this group, this band of idiots, are given the task of rescuing a team of soldiers captured behind enemy lines and are almost certainly being tortured by the hostile Afghan force they are still fighting. They must battle the desert, the insurgents and the monsters while they try to complete their task. Not long into their mission, the guys are hit with a roadside IED, disabling their Humvees and forcing them to walk to, well, somewhere, I’m not entirely sure where. You know what? I don’t think it’s important. Twenty minutes after they set off, I’d actually forgotten they were on a mission. They were just a bunch of muppets lost in the desert. Like the SAS searching for Saddam Hussain, not really knowing what direction to stumble towards next.
From a filmmaking perspective, Dark Continent is riddled with issues. It’s not as dull as it’s predecessor but at the same time it’s not got the redeeming features that the original Monsters has. There’s no skill to be shown in its effects work and there’s certainly no skill to be shown in Tom and Jay’s writing or direction. Everything is blatantly stolen from other, much better films. Like Delta Farce. Silly colour tinting, over saturation, slow motion explosions, instead of showing the skill that Edwards showed with his Adobe software, these guys have googled “how to be Zack Snyder with windows movie maker” and rolled with it. The film starts with some terrible, really badly written, tacky narration that is peppered across the whole movie that serves no purpose other than to annoy. Maybe worse than the poor use of narration is the terrible, terrible music direction. Some scenes are forgivably quiet when there should be something in the way of a score, but man. There’s one scene, a night incursion into a suspected insurgent encampment that should be insanely intense (ignoring the black dude from Detroit on over watch that’s rapping about his night vision goggles). We’ve all seen these scenes play out. They’re silent, all you can hear is footsteps and every creak of a door should have you on the edge of your seat. But that just doesn’t happen here. Whoever was in charge of editing the music in decided, against all rhyme or reason, to keep the prelude to the sneak-a-thon nice and quiet, except for the rapping soldier. But once the sneaking starts, all tension is broken by the bizarre addition of a cheap late 90’s hip-hop backing track overlaying the action. I shit you not.
As the film progresses, the titular monsters add almost nothing to the proceedings. Being reserved, more or less, to background scenery and something to shoot at on occasion instead of people. They are seen roaming around the desert and running like cattle together but they could literally be replaced with any other animal. Sheep, bison, kangaroos, whatever, and they would be just as effective a side-story for the soldiers and their travels. More so maybe. You wouldn’t have to spend money on a giant CGI sheep and could maybe throw some at a couple of decent actors or someone to rewrite the screenplay, or teach Jay and Tom how to colour inside the lines. Like I said at the top of this review, I’m no fan of the original Monsters, but to see the animals fall to a fate usually reserved for shit serial killer franchises, being shoe-horned into a movie they have very little business being in must be heart-breaking for its creator.
Like it’s original, Monsters: Dark Continent is dull, poorly paced and lacking in substance. But worse than that, it’s unnecessary, it’s a cheap cash-in and it’s just a sad film to watch. Evidence that the “We can churn out anything and sell it to you” mentality is still rife in Hollywood and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon. Take it from me, you’d be better off burning your money than spending it to sit in a dark room and watch nothing happen on that big screen really, really slowly.