The monsters from Monsters (2010) have invaded the rest of the world. Is this a case of Monsters Universally or Monsters (St)inc?
Recent Western versions of kaiju films have had distinctly mixed fortunes, from the popular but poor, such as Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla (1998) to the more enjoyable such as Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) and a far more engaging version of Godzilla from Gareth Edwards (2014). Edwards’ first major cinematic feature was also kaiju, Monsters (2010), a compelling, tense and focussed film. But now its sequel, directed by Tom Stone, has been unleashed and the stakes have been raised to new levels of monstrosity.
In the original Monsters Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) sought escape to the U.S. following an invasion of giant monsters that was sweeping across Mexico. The film’s focus was very much on the protagonists’ relationship evolving as they fled, amidst increasing tension of tenticular terror. It was an understated and carefully paced film, strong on characterisation as it followed the escape in a devastating road with unimaginable forces threatening them all the way.
Monsters: Dark Continent is set 10 years later and the media are still concerned with the origin of these frightening creatures. Their increased population is apparent in a seemingly endless number of ‘Infection Zones’, including in the Middle East. Unfortunately this is where the U.S. have sent military forces for years in an attempt to resolve the problem, and has had a side effect of collateral bombings and subsequent distrust for the military amongst the local populace. The latest set of recruits head from Detroit to the war zone with the potential for catastrophe from a variety of fronts, even if engaging with the locals is meant to be a priority. Private Michael Parkes (Sam Keeley) and Noah Frater (Johnny Harris) are just some of the many troops working for Sergeant Forrest (Nicholas Pinnock) and the whole squadron face the horrendous prospects of death, torture and violence from monsters… and/or men.
It’s a sequel with similarities and differences, both notable. The similarity lies with the portrayal of the monsters themselves. Here the titular creatures (they are what the title says… monsters) are as engaging as ever, and not just as huge towering kaiju but also younger monsters that grow in stature, from marching beasts, to smaller ones that are even used for gambling in dog-fights, to babies and even spawn. These are all well constructed and give these beings in a real sense of place – both as monsters and living entities, with some lighter scenes showing the tiny bugs with wings kept by a child in a tin. In many ways, despite the horror that is faced by these monstrous atrocities rampaging across the Earth, it is the humans who are involved with the most violence and bloodshed; all the more because we know they are sentient and have the will to think and make judgements. At least in human terms. Indeed it is this aspect of the film that makes audience identification difficult as none of the protagonists are particularly sympathetic. Before leaving Detroit we witness the troops ‘partying’ and in this respect the film’s infrequent depiction of women, and particularly (early on) presenting them as mere sex objects, the frequent profanity and often graphic gore and torture mark the film and its characters as generally unlikeable. Not that elements of profanity, sex, drugs and bloodshed are intrinsically problematic but in a sequel to a scary and tense film the choice seems unusual.
Monsters: Dark Continent has much to engage it in direction, acting and depiction of its monsters in a stunningly shot location – the Wadi Rum in Jordan. There are some wonderful individual sequences. But much of the politics and its lack of sympathetic protagonists lets it down. Jingoistic Jarheads and dubious politics seem to result in a troublesomely right-wing war story. Any of the human factions cower before the savage monsters (when they appear) but somehow you want the monsters to win.