Monsters: Dark Continent (2015) – Review

Much like with Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd where certain members of the audience didn’t realise it was a musical (yeah…), there were reports of walk-outs during Gareth Edwards’ strange and subversive debut Monsters.  Not for explicit or offensive content, and no, not for being a musical; people walked for the simple fact that there just weren’t very many monsters in it.  Edwards famously shot the film on a shoe-string budget and edited on his laptop as he trekked through Mexico, effectively forcing him to curtail the amount of monster screen time as much as possible (not that it ever felt forced).  As a result, and despite the title, the film was very much about characters and relationships that just happened to be set against the backdrop of a monster-torn world.

Enter Monsters: Dark Continent.  There’s usually an assumption for sequels to be bigger, louder and messier (in the words of Randy Meeks, the body count is always bigger, the death scenes much more elaborate), and while this second venture into a strange world overrun by sea creature-like aliens has expanded the scope entirely – it’s set against the backdrop of a warzone with more monsters, more guns and more action – it’s surprisingly down to earth and tailored to its characters rather than its title.  Moving from the rainforests of Mexico to the dry, war-ravaged Middle East, Dark Continent finds Michael (Sam Keeley) and a group of friends upping sticks from Detroit to join in the fight against not only the monsters that have proliferated significantly since the events of the first film, but the insurgents who have grown aggravated with the US’ occupation and bombing of the region.

The political commentary is hard to miss: the monsters are oil, and it’s basically saying that in spite of extraordinary circumstances, we’ll still find reasons to fight each other.  It’s humans vs humans, with no common enemy bringing people together.  It’s no Independence Day. It’s a war film.  We realise this more than ever as the film gradually evolves into a somewhat generic story about two desperate characters struggling to find their way home behind enemy lines.

A war film that looks terrific, mind you.  Cinematographer Christopher Ross, who collaborated with Tom Green on Misfits, does a wonderful job of immersing us in the drama; we can smell the sweat and feel the dirt as the camera invades the characters’ space and places them under the microscope at every opportunity.  The focus dropping and camera shakes get irritating after a while, but the overall aesthetic is strangely seductive.  Green also does something rather interesting with the way he constructs the film, mirroring the growth of the characters with the visuals, music and pacing.  We open with a bunch of angry, gun-loving kids off the streets while heavy metal tracks play out atop over-exposed frames; by the end, as maturity and a genuine appreciation and humbling for the situation they’re in has caught up with them, the camera and music has stopped thrashing around.

Yet sadly, while the film clearly (and it has to be said, unexpectedly) offers all these interesting things, there’s no escaping the fact that it’s not a particularly enjoyable watch.  We may be interested, but we never especially care about anyone, and Michael’s narration really doesn’t work.  Really doesn’t work.  I once had a college lecturer who hated narration in films and told us never to use it because it’s lazy – that’s silly and over the top, but when you look at an example like this it’s not hard to see her point.  If it wasn’t already far too expository, the way it tries so desperately to sound so deep, so sombre, so meaningful, is really quite cringe-inducing.  Thankfully it tails off after the first half hour.  Monsters: Dark Continent is likely to leave you slightly perplexed.  You won’t love it.  You won’t hate it.  You’ll question why it’s necessary.  You’ll be thankful it’s not tripe.  Which of those questions wins out might be the deciding factor.

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

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