Taking a marked turn from Gareth Edward’s survival film Monsters, Monsters: Dark Continent feels like Pacific Rim smashed into Hurt Locker with all the best bits taken out, ending up as a gritty depiction of modern warfare with, hm, twelve-story-tall shuffling tentacle monsters from space. Though its technical prowess makes it a seemingly worthy sequel, Monsters: Dark Continent is severely hampered by its inconsistent focus, shallow characterisation, and bizarre racially-charged mysticism.
Following Michael (Sam Keely), AKA anonymous marine #1, and his analogous family of soldiers, Monsters: Dark Continent characterises the team as hyper-masculine meatheads, who enlist to get themselves out of a crumbling urban dystopia. This hyper-masculinity is handled with absolutely no finesse whatsoever, and the film plays through every worn-out trope of ‘badass’ to the point of exhaustion. Michael accidentally interrupts his friend mid-coitus, who continues to thrust throughout the conversation (High-five, bro). On their last night before shipping out, the boys paint the town red in the typical fashion. Loud music, graphic sex, and copious drug-usage all come together in a sequence that feels far too long, and all to accomplish what? All the team’s characterisation feels alienating and heavy-handed rather than edgy or sincere.
The film’s biggest failing boils down to its inconsistent characterisation, alternating between vacuous and caricature. Despite genuinely wrenching performances, I found no emotional stake in these angry men. When three of the five generic marines get splattered within a four-minute sequence, it seemed more like narrative pruning than an existential crisis-inducing tragedy. Even the monsters themselves seem hollow, albeit brilliantly designed and profoundly alien. Wandering about in the background as a convenient framing device, the titular monsters hardly influence anything and come across as weirdly superficial. Even Sergeant Frater (Johnny Harris), who transforms from order-obsessed to identity-stripped as the film goes on and warrants the most emotional investment, fails to belt out the final notes of the film’s ‘all-war-is-futile’ theme.
However, the film’s greatest asset is its sweeping and truly epic cinematography. It manages to give an otherwise overstretched film a sense of immense scale to match the massively imposing monsters. I found myself leaning in not at moments of contrived action or unearned suspense, but while trying to really take in the remarkable composition of every frame. In the words of Tom Green, ‘Christopher Ross is a poet with a camera’, and every moment of wonder confirms this with swirling horizons and sun-stained sands. Monsters: DC paints the Middle East as an endless and beautiful desert of foreign mysticism and violent barbarians. Wait, what?
The oddest thing about Monsters: Dark Continent is its problematic foundational narrative, which I think is closely tied to its jarringly inconsistent form. I don’t see how any 21st century anti-war film, as this film clearly is, can unashamedly characterise inhabitants of the Middle East as a binary of either gnarled mystics or bloodthirsty insurgents. ‘Perhaps’, one might say, ‘the film focuses on the futility of war, and how there can be no real solution to modern conflicts’. And to that I ask, ‘What for?’ It comes across as hamfisted, unsubtle, and racially appropriating. If a visual treat is all you’re looking for, Monsters: Dark Continent will satisfy, but everything else is a tangled mess of blood and tentacles.