[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=that film guy&asin=B004JMZH3K][/pullquote] Gareth Edwards’ original Monsters, made on a budget that makes shoestrings look pricey, was a highlight of 2010 and something of a sleeper hit. It made enough of an impact that its director immediately graduated to the big leagues with a shot at Godzilla, and the aim with Monsters: Dark Continent is presumably to make the same lightning strike twice. Does it succeed? No, not really.
The biggest problem is the characters. The principals are four young soldiers from Detroit, shipping out to an unspecified Middle East country to try and stop the alien infestation, which has spread there from Mexico, while also dealing with insurgents. A potentially strong premise, sadly let down by the fact that the four of them are the most obnoxiously macho, alpha-male jackasses this side of Stratton Oakmont. Almost the first thing they do in the film is attend a dog fight, and they spend their last night before deployment snorting coke and licking vodka off prostitutes’ breasts. If the movie is trying to make us hate them, mission well and truly accomplished.
Admittedly, this does end up seeming intentional in the one scene where the film really comes alive. Things inevitably go wrong once they’re in enemy territory, and it quickly becomes apparent that these man-boys who think of war as a game of Call of Duty are woefully unprepared for the horrible reality. The cockiest, most gung-ho of the bunch (played by Game of Thrones’ Joe Dempsie) – who’s so enthusiastic about destabilising the Middle East that he could be Team America’s newest recruit – goes completely to pieces under fire, turning into a whimpering, useless wreck.
There’s a lot of good character work that could result from this, and it is certainly interesting to watch the squad’s sergeant gradually break down over the course of the film as he realises how pointless this war is. Unfortunately, for alarmingly large stretches of the running time, very little actually happens. As in the first film, the aliens are largely kept in the background, but here they’re so incidental to the plot that you could probably remove them entirely and not meaningfully change how things play out.
There are some really good ideas itching to be explored, but they’re largely ignored in favour of imitating the first film’s road movie structure. It’s mentioned early on that the only reason the soldiers are having to fight insurgents is because of all the collateral damage they’ve caused from bombing the aliens – it’s not subtle, granted, but especially with the rise of Islamic State this could have been a very timely film if it had actually done something with this. There’s really only one scene where we see the civilian cost of the fight against the aliens, but four soldiers on foot are able to kill one of the hulking behemoths with shotguns and grenade launchers early on, which rather begs the question of why the air strikes were necessary in the first place.
Tom Green directs competently for the most part, although he does overly favour “arty” close-ups of eyes and mouths, and his action sequences tend to overuse Zack Snyder-esque slow-motion. There is one genuinely beautiful image towards the end, a deliberate callback to the first film’s ending which makes excellent use of this one’s increased budget. He has a good eye for balancing the spectacular and the real, but it’s a pity the script doesn’t give him more to work with. The cast do well with what little they have – Johnny Harris comes off strongest as the sergeant, even if he does look alarmingly like a hypothetical offspring of Ralph Fiennes and Zach Galifianakis.