Giant alien creatures infest the Middle East. Infantryman Michael Parkes (Sam Keeley) is deployed in a US military force tasked with destroying the monsters, and dealing with local insurgents. Under the command of tough sergeant Noah Frater (Johnny Harris), Parkes' unit sets off into the desert on a rescue mission which does not go according to plan.
The main characters of Monsters Dark Continent are introduced in dusty, threatening, grim-looking environments and situations that could come from any recent film about a real-world war zone but for telltales like giant monster corpses on the streets and anti-alien graffiti on smashed buildings. Sergeant Frater (Johnny Harris), disguised as a local, assassinates an insurgent leader in a middle Eastern city and waving his US passport to identify himself as a covert operative to the border guards. Private Parkes (Sam Keeley) and his buddies, on their last night in Detroit before deployment overseas, get high with lap-dancers, but also hang out at a dog-fight where a killer pooch is matched against a tentacled, pitbull-sized alien. Both regions look credibly devastated, by economic woes and conventional warfare as much as the encroachment of the outer space kaiju we met in Gareth Edwards’ break-out DIY hit Monsters.
The first film was an unusual genre blend, using a large-scale alien infestation as the backdrop for an indie relationship road movie. For the follow-up, writer-director Tom Green goes the ‘this time it’s war’ route and shifts focus to military reaction to the threat from space, which featured briefly in Monsters. In a new country, with fresh characters and a wider variety of monsters – from a tiny thing that can be kept in a coffee can through herds of deer-sized creatures to towering behemoths – the film is free to forge its own identity within the world that Edwards established. We see more of the creatures this time round, but their mystery isn’t completely dispelled. As in the climax of Monsters, their reproductive cycle yields a light-show that shakes the human characters’ perceptions to the core, though the grunts here draw different conclusions from the lovers last time round.
A whole genre of films, from Independence Day onwards, have showed Earth’s (which is to say America’s) military nobly fighting and triumphing against overwhelming alien firepower – selling a fantasy of just war against inhuman enemies at stark odds with recent real-world military engagements. Monsters Dark Continent is closer to home as a US action fought against aliens is just as messy as wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Much of threat to the lost patrol comes from understandably pissed-off locals who resent having their homes bombed as collateral damage while the Americans blasting monsters from the air. Action scenes are shocking but disorienting, as any battle plan is forgotten by soldiers under attack from all sides. In its fantastical way, this is one of the most believable, pointed and sober films about the wars of the 21st century.
It’s not free of longeurs (dazed characters wander around a bit too much) and clichés but it also has a rough beauty unusual in science fiction: the bleached-out desert landscapes, augmented by CGI monster carcasses, clouds of black smoke and shimmering are gorgeous, presenting Earth as an alien, hostile environment.
An unconventional sequel to an unconventional film, this works as a standalone picture with its own distinctive take on alien invasion but also expands what now seem like a franchise with potential to deliver more and varied snapshots of human behaviour in extreme circumstances.