‘Monsters: Dark Continent’ Is an Art House War Film … With Creatures
This flick isn’t sure what it wants to be
by MATTHEW GAULT
Parkes wakes up disoriented. He’s been riding in the hot sun with a burlap sack over his head for hours. Now he can see again. He’s in a small room, tied to a chair with his arms bound behind him and a noose around his neck. The rope pulls his head back. If he struggles too much, he’ll choke.
Sgt. Frater sits next to him — eyes intense, mind gone after too many tours in the desert fighting monsters and insurgents. Parkes’ childhood friend Frankie sits across from him, bleeding out from a wound he suffered hours ago when insurgents captured the three soldiers.
One of the men who captured them walks behind Frankie and strokes the soldier’s freshly shaved head. “You watch, helpless,” he explains. “Like we watch.”
This is Monsters: Dark Continent. It’s a strange, schizophrenic blend of military action … and creatures. One that doesn’t always work as a movie.
The three captive soldiers struggle to survive for hours before night falls and a rumbling in the distance disturbs their captors. The soldiers escape and Parkes rushes outside while Frater busies himself with ending this little corner of the insurgency.
Outside, Parkes is alone in the desert at night. He hears the crack of Frater’s weapon and the screams of the men he’s killing. A huge monster towers above the building. Its approach was the rumbling that disturbed the captors.
The beast raises its Cthulhiod face to the darkness and bellows. Parkes raises his hands to his ears as if to block out the noise of both the monster and Frater’s rampage. Madness swims in his eyes.
Monsters: Dark Continent is a 2014 sequel to 2010’s Monsters — the latter a meditative road movie about a guy and a girl navigating the U.S.-Mexico border while avoiding giant squid-face beasts. In this world, a NASA deep space probe crashed on Earth and spread spores that breed, well … monsters.
Gareth Edwards wrote and directed the film and Hollywood was so impressed it gave him the helm of its Godzilla reboot. Edwards did not return to help with Dark Continent.
The sequel takes place 10 years after the events of the first movie. The spore-infected zones have expanded and monsters are everywhere … even the Middle East.
To combat the beasts, Washington launched another war in the region. So the Dark Continent of the title refers to North Africa and the Middle East. Which country or region? The film never says. But based on the facial tattoos on women and the shemagh-style head dresses, I’d say it’s somewhere near Saudi Arabia or the Jordan Valley.
Not that it matters. Audiences want to watch America’s boys kill creatures and police the locals, right? That’s what I expected when I sat down to watch the movie. It’s not what I got.
Monsters: Dark Continent is … weirder than its advertising wants you to know.
The story focuses on Parkes — a young man from Detroit with no family and no future — and his group of friends. There’s nothing much left of their hometown and so they decide to follow adventure and money and sign up with the U.S. Army to hunt monsters in the Middle East.
But America is fighting a two-front war. The fight against the creatures is an air battle. Bombs and missiles are two of the few effective means of felling the towering monstrosities. But those bombing runs cause collateral damage. Lots of civilians have died.
So Parkes and his buddies think they’re going to fight monsters, but instead they’re going to battle an insurgency caused by America’s anti-creature strategy.
To Parkes and his boys, it feels like a bait-and-switch. Which is appropriate, because the movie itself is a bait-and-switch. The trailer makes it look as if the audience will watch American soldiers rampaging across the sand and killing monsters. But that’s not the case.
Monsters: Dark Continent isn’t a sci-fi action thriller. It’s a war movie. An art house war movie. It’s long, slowly paced and full of strange and beautiful scenes. The monsters are mostly window dressing, something in the background the troops must deal with, but which don’t seem to pose any specific threat.
It’s a great set-up and there are a lot of great moments, but the movie just doesn’t quite work.
It’s a frustrating film. The idea behind the movie is fantastic — America losing a two-front war in the Middle East against an angry insurgency and indifferent monsters.
“Put a bullet in a monster, that was supposed to be our war,” Parkes says in a voiceover before the first image even flickers on-screen. “But you better know your enemy.”
This movie isn’t about the monsters. It’s about the men who fight the war against them. Which is a great instinct on the filmmakers’ part. Characters make audiences care.
What’s disappointing is that the writer-director Tom Green cobbled his character moments together from so many other superior films. The derivative scenes serve only to remind the audience of better movies.
The buildup to deployment plays a lot like Deer Hunter, the long meditative shots in the desert look like The Hurt Locker and the PTSD-suffering Sgt. Frater feels as if he stepped out of American Sniper.
It doesn’t quite work, which is a shame because there is some really great stuff here.
Many of the shots are gorgeous. A funereal scene at night late in the film is an astounding visual treat. Watching Frater dig through the backpacks of schoolchildren looking for water at the site of a recent American bombing is an affecting and wonderful scene.
But for every fantastic moment in the film, there are 10 shitty ones.
At least half an hour of the film consists of soldiers wandering. Just shots of troops sitting in Humvees, in planes or riding bikes. And the monsters — though beautiful — are background noise. Scenery, really.
Monsters: Dark Continent is beautiful, strange, mostly terrible and sometimes wonderful. I won’t ever watch it again, but I won’t ever forget it, either.