Ten years have passed since Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) limped across the US-Mexico border to find that extraterrestrial MTRs had broken quarantine and spread into the States. In that time the creatures have made it as far as the Middle East, exacerbating the war on terror as American troops work to neutralise both local insurgency and the wider alien invasion. New recruits Michael (Sam Keeley), Frankie (Joe Dempsie), Shaun (Parker Sawyers) and Inkelaar (Kyle Soller) — lead by Sgt. Frater (Johnny Harris) — are deployed on a rescue mission after four American soldiers are deemed missing in action.
There was a time when every science fiction series seemed to be switching genres with each new instalment, usually starting life as a horror only to be reformatted into an action movie before finally descending into parody. (Except Terminator, anyway, which made the transition into action-comedy with relative success.) Essentially a romantic drama, however, Gareth Edwards’ Monsters seemed to buck the trend, focusing on the developing attraction between two survivors while keeping the aliens themselves confined to the background. Tradition has now been restored by Tom Green — a British television writer best known for E4’s Misfits — who has directed a war movie for a sequel.
Where Monsters was quiet and contemplative Monsters: Dark Continent is brash and unabashed; where the first teased its MTRs the second flaunts them; where McNairy and Able humanised the drama Michael Parkes and company soon have you rooting for the enemy. Given the manner in which Monsters analogised Mexico-American relations you might expect the sequel to satirise the Iraq war (it is a prolonged invasion after all), but for the first hour at least it’s more American Sniper than Starship Troopers.
Just as Green helped audiences sympathise with juvenile delinquents in Misfits, however, he eventually manages to redeem Parkes, who as the regiment’s situation deteriorates is stripped of both his bravado and brothers-in-arms. It’s a strong, surprisingly sensitive performance on Keeley’s part, and Parkes’ non-traditional hero’s journey from alpha male to whimpering mess is a counter-intuitive but compelling one.
These days anything — including Edwards’ original — with a big creature in it is reflexively labeled Lovecraftian by lazy commentators, but Dark Continent truly justifies the comparisons, seeing as it does a mortal man unmade by his experience of the supernatural. Keeley is equalled only by Harris, whose own struggles as Sgt Frater — a serial tourer — successfully undermines the first act’s apparent propaganda.
It all comes together at a terrorist compound where the surviving soldiers are being held captive. Given that the monsters were previously shown to seek out light sources their migration to the desert seems a strange one, but their arrival at the facility — attracted by the security lighting — re-establishes the characteristic. Parkes and Harris escape on motorbikes, finding themselves at a burnt-out school bus filled with the smoldering corpses of small children and flanked by the remains of a young MTR.
It’s a shocking sequence, but leads to a scene of almost absurd beauty — similar to the petrol station set-piece from the first film — in which simultaneous funeral rites are performed by Middle Eastern women and an adult alien — both overlooked by Parkes. Green never quite reconciles his parallel between terrorists and extra terrestrials, but the general theme seems to be that there are no monsters, only misunderstand motivations.
Monsters: Dark Continent won’t be to everyone’s tastes, and even fans of the original might struggle to re-connect with the mythology. (Unlike Aliens and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, there are unlikely to be many who view the sequel as superior.) That said, for all of its differences Green’s film at least feels like a spiritual successor to Evans’, and providing you make it through the first half — warning: it’s a long one — there is still plenty to admire.