Director – Tom Green, Screenplay – Jay Basu & Tom Green, Story – Jesse Atlas, Jay Basu & Brent Bonacorso, Producers – Rory Aitken, Allan Niblo, Ben Pugh & James Richardson, Photography – Christopher Ross, Music – Neil Davidge, Visual Effects Supervisor – Sebastian Barker, Visual Effects – The Post Republic UK (Supervisor – Seb Baker), Creature Design – Christian Bull, Creatures Built by Minimo VFX (Supervisor – Maurizio Giglioli), Special Effects Supervisor – David Harris, Makeup Design – Isabella Cruickshank & Jemma Harwood, Production Design – Kristian Milsted. Production Company – Vertigo Films/Solar Film Partners/42.
Sam Keeley (Private Michael Parkes), Johnny Harris (Staff Sergeant Noah Frater), Joe Dempsie (Private Frankie Maguire), Kyle Soller (Private Karl Inkelaar), Nicholas Pinnock (Sergeant Forrest), Parker Sawyers (Private Shaun Williams), Philip Arditti (Khalil), Sofia Boutella (Ara), Michaela Coel (Kelly Williams)
Four friends from the same neighbourhood in Detroit have enlisted in the army. They are shipped to the Middle East into the midst of one of the alien infection zones. In between fighting the monsters, the army is also having to deal with a local insurgency and they are placed on patrol duty in the civilian areas. They are then assigned to a mission under Staff Sergeant Frater of travelling into the infected zone and rescuing a group of soldiers that have failed to return. The mission rapidly goes awry as their vehicles are destroyed by IEDs. With members of the team killed, they flee on foot under fire and are captured as they struggle to complete the mission.
Monsters (2010) was a sleeper success for British director Gareth Edwards. The idea of a mysterious zone inhabited by baffling alien entities caught on and the film became an audience favourite at festivals. Moreover, Edwards produced all the dazzling effects sequences himself on a miniscule budget. It was enough to have him propelled to the frontline as director of the massively budgeted and scaled Godzilla (2014) with only his second film, followed by the Star Wars prequel Rogue One (2016). Monsters: Dark Continent was a sequel where Edwards produces but hands the creative reins over to Tom Green who had previously only directed the British tv mini-series thriller Blackout (2012). Back on board are the first film’s producers Allan Niblo and James Richardson, as well as the film’s star Scoot McNairy and even Nick Love, the British director of Outlaw (2007) and The Sweeney (2012), as executive producers.
As it sets in, Monsters: Dark Continent is immediately a very different film to its predecessor. For one, Gareth Edwards shot the original digitally – it was fairly plain and uncomplicated visually but for the often very subtle fact that many of the backgrounds had been digitally inserted into existing locations. By contrast, Dark Continent has been shot with a richly textured and very self-consciously stylish cinematographic palette. The editing is fractured and piecemeal, the sort you can get in a modern action movie, with often closeup focus on the raw emotions of the characters, not the simple and visually unadorned style of the original.
In the first film, the effects were often unobtrusively inserted whereas the ones here seem to be drawing attention to the fact that they are effects set-pieces – when we first see the giant leviathans in the desert, the army helicopter has to conduct what would be considered the unnecessarily risky move of flying close in between two of them all so that we can see the effects up close; a later sequence not dissimilar to the one at the end of Monsters where Sam Keeley and local girl Sofia Boutella sit in the desert and watch an alien seeding spores has attention drawn to it by the monsters being surrounded by tendrils of glowing Spielbergian light effects. These are sequences that seem less unobtrusive than ones that are drawing attention and announcing they are big flashy effects sequences.
Monsters: Dark Continent is supposedly set in the same world as Monsters but this ends up being a bait-and-switch – you sit down to watch expecting one type of film and ended up getting something else. You are left with the feeling that Tom Green wanted to make an entirely different film altogether – one about soldiers serving the Iraq War (even if the country where the film takes place is never specified). Indeed, for the greater part of its running time, you feel like any monsters are so peripheral to the show that they could have been cut and made minimal difference to the rest of the story.
Instead, Tom Green spends just short of two hours taking us through the induction of a group of friends into the US military, their first tentative missions into the field, the assignment gone wrong and their being stranded in the desert at the mercy of and captured by insurgents. A good part of me is resistant to this type of story about the trial by fire in military service and how this put hairs on the chest of a young tenderfoot by learning to shoot up foreigners for their country. We went through it a few months earlier with American Sniper (2014) where the simple-minded patriotism it stirred in an audience stuck in one’s craw. Served up again here, it seems no less unpalatable.
On the other hand, after about the first hour or so of feeling dissatisfied with the lack of monsters in a film where its director clearly had ambitions of something else altogether, Monsters: Dark Continent oddly started to work. I am not quite sure of the point it started to kick in but I do recall a point I was going “Well, this may not be a Monsters film but it is surprisingly well made.”
The moral black-and-whites are far more shaded than they were in say American Sniper or even a similar military grunt story like Platoon (1986). Tom Green does a fantastically good job in both the cinematographic composition and in being able to use the camera’s eye to look inside the fraying emotions of his actors. In this regard, Johnny Harris, a British actor usually known for playing ugly mugs and thugs, gives one of his best performances as the tough bawling drill sergeant (with his distinctive Cockney accent subsumed for a standard American one).
I don’t think Tom Green does the best with some of the effects scenes – the one where the bug emerged from the boy’s tin and flew away ended up seeming more awkward than convincing – on the other hand, there are some beautiful shots like that of Sam Keeley silhouetted against the desert as vast leviathans of incomprehensible purpose create their own sandstorms as they move that are visually stunning no matter what way you look at them.
(Nominee for Best Cinematography at this site’s Best of 2014 Awards).