“The horror—the horror!” -Joseph Conrad Heart of Darkness
There is a tradition of film-making going back to Apocalypse Now! which draws on the critical legacy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (albeit quite uncritically). Utilizing an adventure tale set in a site of colonial intervention in order to promote a cynical point of view stemming from a nightmarish encounter with barbarism is a classic method of generating a piece of social commentary without engaging in overtly political themes. Monsters: Dark Continent, heir to the critically-significant 2010 masterpiece Monsters directed by Gareth Edwards, aspires to construct just such a work of art. Though it succeeds in its project to create a work of art in the aforementioned tradition, it does not quite succeed in the project to create a good film.
In some ways the film does live up to the pronouncement of one review, who states that “in its fantastical way, this is one of the most believable, pointed and sober films about the wars of the 21st century.” Though this is true, it is a bit like saying the original Transformers film was one of the greatest of its franchise. Though well-executed, films like The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty fail to provide a critical lens into the current neo-colonial engagements that they seek to represent. In the former case, the narrow viewpoint of the US military is never subjected to a thorough critique, and the latter is nothing more than a fictional portrayal of the Obama Administration’s propagandistic version of the events surrounding the execution of Osama bin Laden.
There have been other war films fixating on these neo-colonial endeavors in the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, but they also lack critical import. A more insightful reflection on the meaning of these wars can be found in the Masters of Horror episode “Homecoming,” in which the soldiers killed in the Iraq War rise from the dead and return to the United States in order to vote out the President who spearheaded the war. All radical critiques of electoral politics aside, this fantastical imagery captured the essence of the situation in a way that more “realist” dramas were unable to at the time, particularly in light of the jingoism of mainstream television shows like JAG or 24.
Thus, with the use of a science fictional element in order to explore the meaning of the US interventions, Monsters: Dark Continent held much promise. It is unclear if it is intended as an in-universe sequel to the original film or only a kind "spiritual sequel," as it seems to portray something of an alternate timeline utilizing the same process of alien colonization. In the original film (produced to critical acclaim with a mere $500,000 budget, 2 actors, and 1 director/special effects producer/writer/etc.), NASA sends out a probe to the far reaches of the solar system in order to investigate possible signs of life. The probe returns, breaking up in the atmosphere on the Mexican-US border. Spores of what turn out to be gigantic tentacled aliens spread across the area, resulting in a complete collapse of northern Mexico and the US border into what becomes known as “the Infected Zone.”
Monsters treats this background as a metaphor for the impact of US imperialism on Latin America and the brutality of its immigration policy. This is not done in a heavy-handed way (Gareth Edwards himself disavows this intent, but artistic intent is not necessary for such commentary, nor is Edwards’ statement believable given what we know about his productions) and it manages to utilize suspense and relationship-building to drive the plot. With a small effects budget and a staff of one, Edwards crafted a unique and chilling entry into the giant monster genre eventually giving us an almost religious payoff at the end of the film. Murals demanding that the US stop bombing Mexico as well as other indications that the true monsters are the US military grant us a window into a more subtle and powerful tale than a general audience might anticipate with a film of its kind.
Monsters: Dark Continent, rather than answer the question of whether the events in Mexico happened, seems to suggest that the same event simply occurred over the Middle East. An unspecified country is at the center of the conflict (undoubtedly a stand-in for Iraq) and US attempts to destroy the creatures have provoked a massive insurgency. The task of the film’s protagonists is to participate in efforts to defeat the insurgency as US air power bombs the creatures—and whoever else might be in the way.
The film opens in Detroit, and one might expect something meaningful to be said given the symbolism Detroit holds for any major critique of the current social order in the United States. The main characters, led by Sam Keely’s Michael, live seemingly miserable and precarious lives full of extreme masculine bravado in the rust belt ruins of the once-thriving metropolis. Rather than truly investigate the relationships produced in this environment, the narrative rapidly moves through this space with rapid cuts of muscular, shirtless men sporting tattoos, having sex, playing basketball, and partying with prostitutes. The gender politics could have been more meaningful in this section had it involved a sustained reflection from any other point of view than that of the major male characters, but as it stands the women are sex toys and baby factories, and that seems to be their only role. As the film progresses, their resentfulness towards the men in their lives going to war is never examined leaving one to imagine them as more objects in the scenery.
Concerning scenery, the principal critique of the film centers around the monsters themselves, which seem to be nothing more than backdrop. In Monsters their effects were noticeable everywhere and their presence drove the plot, but in Dark Continent they are always haunting the background, periodically entering the fray but never effecting major changes in the plot. Once the soldiers arrive in the unspecified Middle Eastern country the creatures periodically appear on the horizon only to be dispatched by massive aerial bombardments. Nonetheless, the Lovecraftian aesthetic achieved by the CGI artists is frankly unparalleled in recent memory. Breathtaking visuals inspire awe, cultivated by musical cues which grant one a sense of transcendence brought on by the exotic locale.
And this exoticism is one of the film's major problems. Whereas the people of Mexico in Monsters are textured, real life people (a consequence of filming in Mexico itself), the people of Dark Continent are more or less caricatures of Middle Easterners. Nonetheless, there is some truth to how they are portrayed in the sense of clothing styles (though the choices are eclectic, this manages to achieve the effect of a dreamscape version of the Middle East) and food, but the people appear to us in good orientalist fashion: with no history, part of the “exotic” scenery populated by the monsters. One has no sense, in fact, that the people’s lives are being intruded upon by the monsters, rather they appear to be ontologically structured by the same stuff as the aliens themselves.
By fixating on the soldiers’ point of view, like every other movie concerning neo-colonial interventions in the 21st century, the film squanders its critical potential. Displays of hyper-masculine violence are subject to a thorough trouncing by defeat at the hands of insurgents, providing us with an endless parade of “War is Hell” clichés which, nonetheless, manage to achieve their point and break from the almost intolerable atmosphere of the first third of the film. We see characters die unceremonious deaths and at least one character arc spanning from an initial violent reaction against a local person living under occupation, to utter horror at the sight of another person being summarily executed by the end of the film. The breakdown of Johnny Harris’ character Frater is perhaps the film’s most solid acting performance, and the final shots of him falling to the sand with the backdrop of utterly gargantuan creatures rising from the sand approximates the almost transcendent moment at the end of the original film.
Nonetheless, we are left with nothing particularly new or insightful about these wars other than they are “hell” on the soldiers involved and necessitate a kind of mindless cruelty that destroys the minds of all of those involved. The old cliché of the redeeming qualities of the native population’s communalism are trotted out, though executed well enough. Nonetheless, to be subjected to yet another film in this setting—even a fantastical and orientalist dreamscape version—and have no major characters from the place in question is utterly disgusting. It is incredible that no Vietnamese or Iraqi protagonists ever show up in this overdone genre.
In sum, I’m still waiting for my science fictional Battle of Algiers. Monsters: Dark Continent is unwatchable at certain moments, but the latter two thirds of the film are well-executed. The triad of soldier, local population, and monsters provides for many layers of reflection on the meaning of these neo-colonial interventions and the ways in which the borders between these identities breakdown when pressed. One could employ a simple allegorical reading in which the US must intervene to destroy monsters like ISIS, but subsequently destroys the local population, producing more spores which produce more monsters, and so on. I tend to think there are more insightful ways to view the film. Nonetheless, it is not a worthy successor to Monsters and is in many ways only a film for those interested in either genre (giant monsters or war movies), or at minimum those who were fascinated with the original film. Hyper-masculinity, orientalism, and an inability to truly integrate the monsters beyond epiphenomenal status bring Dark Continent into a category of failure.