Even if future Godzilla helmer Gareth Edwards’ 2010 debut feature, Monsters, wasn‘t for everybody, at least it was an interesting take on the genre. And while most of that film centered on the sexual tension between a publishing heiress and the photographer sent to fetch her from an alien-ridden “infected zone,” the world its characters inhabited and their ultimate goal were both defined by a looming alien threat.
Five years later, Monsters: Dark Continent follows the letter of the original film by allowing the monsters themselves to remain in the background. But it misses the point, namely that the threat that the creatures might present themselves is what is supposed to drive the narrative. Here, the monsters are entirely incidental to the story. Instead we are forced to sit through 119 punishing minutes of what plays like a dorm-room answer to modern war films, complete with the constant profanity and masculine hysterics that pass for impact in an immature script. You can practically see the Reservoir Dogs poster on the wall behind the screenwriters—there are two, director Tom Green and Jay Basu, one of the writers of the upcoming Metal Gear Solid movie—as they type. (They’ve seen District 9 as well, as evidenced in an early dogfighting scene involving a pit bull and a CGI alien.)
The stench of testosterone pervades Monsters: Dark Continent even before the first frame, as a voiceover declares, “Put a bullet in a monster. That was supposed to be our war,” over a black screen. (We will be treated to a multitude of these gruff truisms throughout the film.) The story begins in Detroit—we know it’s Detroit, because the word “DETROIT” is splayed across the screen in (no shit) American-flag lettering—where three young street-tough types, Michael (Sam Keeley), Frankie (Joe Dempsie), and Shaun (Parker Sawyers), are preparing to ship off to an unnamed Middle Eastern country to fight in the aforementioned war. This early section of the film contains a truly offensive example of macho posturing, as one of the young men leaves his girlfriend’s side what appears to be mere minutes after she gives birth to his child to go party with his “boys.” He tells her he’ll be back early, then the trio stays out all night snorting cocaine and having sex with prostitutes while literally waving guns around. “Boys will be boys,” the movie says, metaphorically reaching out for a fist bump.
So yeah, they’re real sympathetic and nuanced characters. But no matter, because shortly after leaving Green’s rap-rock vision of Detroit, the film turns into a video game as our heroes are deployed to not-quite-Iraq. Here we meet the uber-manly instructors who are going to shout at and punch these slightly-less-manly new recruits, led by unstable combat veteran Sgt. Frater (Johnny Harris). After even more time is spent getting to know these one-dimensional masculine stereotypes, the platoon is sent out into the desert to find a group of four missing American soldiers. There, they are attacked—not by monsters, mind you, but by IEDs. The survivors are then kidnapped by insurgents who are also not monsters. More of them are killed in an orgy of gunshots and hoarse yelling (but not by monsters). Michael escapes with Frater in a scene with death, dismemberment, virile sobbing, etc., that only tangentially involves monsters.
The production design enhances the film’s more grating aspects, which include a loud, “badass” rock soundtrack laid over an already ear-shattering sound mix. The look of the film recalls contemporary war films like The Hurt Locker and Lone Survivor, using shaky camerawork; dusty, overexposed street scenes; and the occasional dingy, flourescent-lit bathroom to connote “realness.” Pepper in some gratuitous scenes of suffering, both human and animal—a woman in the throes of childbirth, a chicken being slaughtered, the bodies of dead children covered in flies—juxtaposed with sad, skinny, living children, their faces artfully smeared with dirt as they stand mournfully next to monster corpses, and the whole thing is so aggressively gritty that it’s both exploitative and rather boring.
This is all in service of a half-baked metaphor for the war in Iraq, where America goes to war with a (literal) alien threat, only to face an insurgency started by natives who are apparently not grateful for all the monster-killing the U.S. is doing on their behalf. The monsters do appear more often than in the first film, and, in several scenes, are meant to invoke awe, an emotional beat lifted from the original Monsters. They’re often quite beautiful, brought to life through some well-done CGI and some cool character design. Some of the monsters are derived from Edwards’ film and some—like a herd of aliens that runs past the convoy in a scene straight out of Jurassic Park—are new.
In a more intelligent movie, the relatively benign, even spiritual nature of these creatures being used to justify a bloody and expensive war would serve as a metaphor. But the big centerpiece scenes and core conflicts of Monsters: Dark Continent have nothing to do with this dynamic and everything to do with the relationships between its cast of R-rated G.I. Joes, forcing one to include that this possible theme is unintentional, or at least mishandled. Ironically, if it weren’t for those shoehorned-in aliens, this whole he-man fantasy wouldn’t exist in the first place.