Not the Monsters you were looking for.
Another ill-advised sequel, Dark Continent loses sight of Gareth Edwards’ magic and somewhat clumsily attempts to fuse military/political commentary on the Middle East with, erm, Monsters...Far from the low budget Aliens-esque outing that the trailers suggest, this is instead a low budget war commentary probably more intent on looking at the trouble the US cause/get into in the Middle East than in anything to do with Monsters (the film or the creatures). Still, going down the Aliens route may not have been the best thing either, and considering that Edwards blended what was ostensibly a relationship drama with a "monsters" backdrop so exquisitely in the first film, on paper, doing the same thing with the seemingly perpetually topical Mid East troubles must have seemed like a veritably inspired idea.Unfortunately, the problem isn’t as much in the set-up as in the delivery, with debut director Tom Green (not the outrageous comedian, but the director of a few episodes on the TV show Misfits) struggling to maintain a handle on the material, and faring even worse when it comes to the tone of the piece. The plot, set 10 years after the first movie, sees trouble in the Middle East, and some fresh new recruits thrown in at the deep end. Given a rescue mission behind enemy lines, the team learn the hard way of the impact both men and monsters have had on the country’s landscape. Oh yeah, and there are monsters too.
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that the monsters of Dark Continent are very much an afterthought, and that the story itself is designed to work with or without them. They could have been swapped out with another equally colourful backdrop, for example, and it would have made little to no difference. There’s a somewhat valid argument that this was the same technique that Edwards used for the first movie, but there was something about his blending of relationship drama and strange alien beasts that worked so well; it may have used them as a backdrop ostensibly, but the reality was that they were seamlessly and inextricably connected to the narrative. Dark Continent can make no such claim, unfortunately.
Edwards is certainly conspicuous in his absence, with an in-name-only executive producer credit, but actually very little input into this sequel because, allegedly, he was far too busy with his first big budget outing, Godzilla. It’s understandable that Edwards would have been preoccupied, but it’s a loss to the film as you can see that there are some interesting ideas – some nice concepts – which, in better hands, or with better guidance, could have amounted to a worthy sequel.
Dark Continent isn’t actually a bad watch – it’s got nice moments, tense setpieces, and reasonable use of CG. But it doesn’t gel as a whole, failing to live up to the legacy of the first.
It’s hard to accept the difficulties filmmakers have in attempting to bottle lightning – thinking back, the original movie was a tiny budget affair which was pure magic; the notion that you could simply replicate that is something only ignorant studio execs dream up. And the sequels that we do get are still judged by those lofty, unattainable ideals. In its own right, many of these tangential sequels would have likely fared better had they been rewritten as independent movies, rather than franchise instalments. Dark Continent is no exception. That’s not to say that it doesn’t need some work – a more experienced hand behind the scenes, some characters you actually care about, and a less clumsy/in-your-face allegory/commentary on done-to-death Mid-East skirmishes would have all been welcome – but expectations based on the original have a lot to blame for the downfall of this follow-up.
Ultimately, if you try to reset any expectations you have – this isn’t anything like Edwards’ Monsters and this isn’t a low budget Aliens – and look on Dark Continent as more of a polished straight-to-DVD style affair, you’ll undoubtedly be pleasantly surprised. However, as a theatrical feature, walking in the wake of the original, it was almost destined to disappoint from the day it lost Edwards.
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