Written by: Tom Green, Jay Basu
Directed by: Tom Green
Starring: Johnny Harris, Sam Keeley, and Joe Dempsie
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
"We will fight those who oppose peace in this world...human or otherwise."
For about 90 minutes of its draggy 120 minute runtime, Monsters: Dark Continent feels like a woefully misguided sequel to Gareth Edward’s Monsters. While newcomer Tom Green applies his predecessor’s approach of keeping the title creatures relegated to the background, it does so in the service of a loud, tedious war movie. You’re not sure if Monsters somehow didn’t get its wires crossed with a tone-deaf Jarhead sequel that’s ostensibly preoccupied with the horrors of war, yet leans on the sort of clichés and imagery that glorify violence.
By the time it does come around to obviously commenting on the characters’ twisted worldviews, it’s a bit too late since the film has subjected the audiences to too many grating passages featuring Americans shooting Middle Easterners without a hint of self-awareness.
Set some time after the original film, Dark Continent reveals a world where the extraterrestrials monsters have taken up residence across the globe. Still, a war between America and an unnamed Arabic country wages, but it’s the possibility of killing monsters that lures young men over to fight. Michael Parkes (Sam Keely) hails from shambling Detroit, where he and his buddies are set to be deployed to serve under legendary marksman Noah Frater (Johnny Harris). Before heading off, Michael and his bros enjoy one last night of debauchery, one that’s filled with booze, drugs, dogfights, and strippers during a sequence that reminds us that we’re often sending boys—not men—off to battle (not that the film engages this much, but it is interesting to ponder what type of person is drawn to war).
When the friends arrive, their war movie fantasies are initially indulged: a hard-ass drill sergeant (Nicholas Pinnock) berates them but eventually engages in sexually-charged chatter with them (apparently, it’s imperative that one buys sex toys for your wife, lest she decides to cheat on you while you’re deployed), and they’re eventually charged with patrolling streets crawling with friendlies and enemies alike. The latter belongs to an insurgent force that bristles at the American occupation, and their presence makes everyone (especially Michael, who warily glares at a group engaging in Muslim prayers) uneasy about all of the natives.
Meanwhile, the monsters stomp in the distance, presumably to highlight the absurdity of mankind continuing to engage in wars with each other. As the film is caught up in delivering war porn (Frater is introduced shooting an Arab man in the face as he interacts with a child, a moment that feels like it's supposed to be more cool than it is disturbing), it never quite finds a place for the extraterrestrials to function as a metaphor until late in the proceedings, when Parkes and Frater are in search of MIAs.
Until that point, however, Dark Continent is an disorienting, dull, and clichéd war movie; Green’s decision to wallow in violence for so long is anathema to Edward’s original, a film that reached for moments of sublime beauty in quiet moments. Dark Continent—a subtitle that conjures up uncomfortable Victorian-era connotations for “uncivilized” corners of the Earth—treats such moments as an afterthought in favor of crass war imagery and one-sided, stereotypical depictions of insurgent Middle Easterners (I can only assume the film wants us to connect them to ISIS, but we’re never told exactly why they’re such bad guys—the fact that they’re set to killing Americans seems to be enough, apparently).
When Green finally returns to the spirit of the original, it’s woefully heavy-handed, even more so than Edwards’s film (which is really saying something). Moving past the violence is appreciable, as is the ultimate message that these Americans have deluded perceptions of most of the natives, but it’s done in the most obvious, overcooked manner, with characters looking on and observing the monsters and realizing they’re not so different from humanity after all. Once again, these creatures operate completely in the background as an allegory, this time representing the misunderstood Arab world that’s been demonized for its extremists.
That’s a potent, relevant observation, but I can’t help but wonder if a short film might have been more efficient; at feature-length, Dark Continent’s introspection is lost among the din of war. In fact, even after its quiet, contemplative moments, it returns to the battlefield to indulge in more unseemly violence against innocent Arabs. Anyone in their right minds should come to the same conclusion this film eventually reaches about natives in war-torn countries, and the film does at least hint that we have more work to do about our understanding of American imperialism. Frater is the film’s most interesting character, a sort of Chris Kyle stand-in compelled to do eight tours of duty without knowing why he’s even there anymore, but the film only explores through superficial and violent means.
In the process of scavenging together this tonal and thematic mess, Green at least mimics his predecessor’s aesthetic, as Dark Continent is a logical extension of the world established in Monsters. Set in practical environments with unobtrusive digital embellishments, the film effortlessly weaves in its alien creatures. Most of the film’s staggering shots involve the extraterrestrials plodding along in the distance, half-obscured by dust and punishing sunlight. The film’s world might be populated with cartoon characters, but, on a visual level, it carries a believably lived-in quality that allows it to resonate on some level: we sense that this is a world not too far removed from our own because, Kaiju notwithstanding, it really isn’t.
If Green is to be commended for anything , it’s his decision to at least honor Edwards’s conception of a monster movie that remains focused on humanity. It would not have been surprising to see Dark Continent turn into a half-baked Starship Troopers riff, and, while it only becomes a half-baked riff on several war movies, it at least tries to respect the legacy of the original. Since it’s such a bloated bore, it doesn’t quite succeed, so the film is weirdly good-intentioned and misguided all at once: it correctly attempts to tell a human story with monsters in the background, but the story it chooses is clumsy, confused, and muddled. It’s difficult to take its eventual anti-war stance seriously when it spends over three-quarters of its run-time reveling in violence and the male id.
For its home video debut, Monsters: Dark Continent arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Anchor Bay. The disc’s presentation is stellar from a visual standpoint (this is a very sleekly produced film) but somewhat obnoxious on the audio side. To call this 5.1 DTS-MA track “aggressive” is underselling it: quite frankly, it is loud, almost punishingly so. It’s among the most active and enveloping tracks in recent memory, but I was constantly fumbling for the remote in order to achieve a perfect level of volume as it oscillated between bombastic explosions and the introspective narration. Just know your system will be getting quite a workout with this one. The same can’t be said for your curiosity surrounding the film’s production, as only a theatrical trailer and a 3-minute making-of scene with Green are the only extras.
Again, it’s fair to reiterate that Monsters: Dark Continent isn’t exactly the most shameless attempt at a sequel—however obvious it may be, the film does have something to say, and Green shows remarkable vision in realizing this world. In many ways, he’s not unlike Neill Blomkamp, and here’s hoping he can be paired with a better script in the future that will put his talents to better use.
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