Monsters: Dark Continent (2014)

2015 #115
Tom Green | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Ten years after the events of Monsters (according to the blurb, anyway — there’s no mention in the film), the infected zones have spread worldwide. Keen to quell the spread of the aliens, America have decided to do what they do best: bomb them all to hell, wherever they may be. In the Middle East, the destruction of lives and property — by both the monsters and US bombs — has led to insurgents fighting back against US troops, while the campaign against the monsters continues with little success.

In case it’s not apparent, this sequel to Gareth Edwards’ low-budget sci-fi indie-romance takes things in a completely different direction: we follow a troop of soldier mates (primarily Parkes, played by Sam Keeley — you can tell he’s the lead because he gets to deliver the sub-Apocalypse Now voiceover narration; but also other young British actors like Joe Dempsie (of Skins and Game of Thrones) and Kyle Soller (of Poldark)) as they’re shipped off for their first tour in Nonspecificstan, where they’re under the command of hardened vet Frater (Johnny Harris). The guys’ macho posturing is soon undercut by the realities of a combat zone, especially when they’re dispatched to rescue four soldiers left behind deep in the infected zone — or the IZ, as they of course call it.

For its genre-shifting pains, Dark Continent received exceptionally poor reviews: “disappointing”; “uncompromisingly boring and pointless”; “a clichéd macho fantasy”; “monstrously bad”; even “the worst sequel of the decade.” Oh dear. At the same time, respected genre expert Kim Newman gave it 4 stars in Empire. Has too much time spent with cheap DTV crap for his regular Empire column warped his perspective? (Radio Times also gave it 4 stars, but their film section disappeared into a haze of unreliable irrelevance long ago.) So is it the unconscionable disaster of consensus, or a misunderstood success? In my opinion, it’s somewhere between the two.

Let’s start with some other reviewers’ problems. An oft-cited one is the initial moral repugnance of the characters, but is it a valid criticism to say a movie about a bunch of macho dicks presents its characters as macho dicks? Because let’s not be kidding ourselves, the American military is not full of Guardian-reading lefties; it’s full of vulgar, unreconstructed young Blokes… like these fellas. Now, I’m sure I’m generalising — I’m sure they can’t all be like this — but I can believe plenty of them are. No doubt elements of their behaviour are more “macho fantasy” than reality (a hookers and coke party the night before shipping out?), but the fundamentals of their attitude are plausible.

If the film glamourised this we might be in trouble, but I don’t think it does. The aforementioned party looks scuzzy rather than fun, though I suppose some might disagree. More pertinently, the “war is hell” theme hits home pretty fast, and these posturing wannabes are torn apart by the realities of combat — in some cases, literally. Cue karmic punishment and/or a patch of soul searching and personality restructuring. This arc — a war zone taking a bunch of full-of-themselves oh-so-macho kids, then chewing them up and spitting them out — may be a little obvious, even cliché, but at least it does it. Anyone who thinks the film is glorifying their “macho fantasy” lifestyle has judged the film solely on its first act.

Perhaps the film isn’t clear enough on this point. Later, it does again flirt with values one might find inaccurate: Two survivors, hiding out for the night, talk about home. One recalls how, last time he was back, his daughter looked scared of him. The other asks why he doesn’t just stay home with his little girl? The first says he came to the IZ to fight to keep her safe. The other asks if he thinks they’re doing that? And just as it looks like we’re about to get a truthful, if obvious, moment where the characters admit that, no, this war is utterly pointless and has absolutely nothing to do with America or keeping Americans safe, the first guy answers, “yes, I do.” Really? Really?! At that moment it just feels queasily like right-wing propaganda, especially as the two characters in question have been positioned as our de facto heroes.

But stick with it for the final act and that character goes off the reservation. Again, Dark Continent presents us with a perspective distasteful to the politics of film critics (and me too — I’m not entirely absenting myself here), but then later shows that it doesn’t support that point of view after all. Now, I’m not making a case for this being a Clever Movie — the points it makes are nothing new, and they’re made in a form and through character arcs that are intensely familiar, so I can see justification for those criticisms (and such criticisms have been made). However, labelling it a testosterone-drenched war-is-fun propaganda piece for emotionally/socially underdeveloped males is somewhat unjust.

In a related argument, some have accused the film of going too far, glorifying things that deserve none. Partly this stems from reading the film as being pro the experience it conveys, which — as if I haven’t made it clear already — I think is a false reading. Early on, before they ship out, our ‘heroes’ attend an illegal dog fight that sets a pit bull against a dog-sized monster. It does not go well. There is maybe a little too much graphic detail at points. Even these distasteful characters don’t enjoy the ‘spectacle’, though; indeed, our main point of identification (Parkes, with his voiceover) looks away for most of the fight and is the most disturbed by it after, too. It’s a horrible scene, but it’s meant to be horrible. The counterargument goes that it’s unnecessary — no one in real life is having dogs fight alien monsters, so where’s the benefit to putting it on screen?

Later, in the war zone, there are more horrific situations and imagery that will certainly test your perspective. For example, the guys come across a school bus that was caught in an attack on some monsters. The bus is full of dead children, but our guys need to search it for water nonetheless. Is this unflinching in its realism of the brutality of war, or a step too far and just sick? Perhaps the sci-fi context again undermines the movie, because you can’t apply the “this is really happening” argument when there are giant monsters involved. But if the giant monsters are a MacGuffin to reflect real, current conflicts, then does this become something that is happening? Perhaps it’s a circular argument.

A more clearly accurate criticism concerns the presence of the titular monsters… or, rather, the lack of them. Far from being the film’s raison d’être, they are instead its MacGuffin. In reality, Dark Continent is just a Middle East war movie with some creatures adding a little flavour. Remove them completely and the entire plot would function just fine. That’s not a rash generalisation, I’ve thought it through: there’s nothing in this movie that couldn’t occur by setting it in Iraq or Afghanistan during their recent real-world occupations, and occasionally replacing the alien monsters with (depending on context) an IED or some natural wonder. Now, I’m sure this is part of the point — it’s an incredibly thinly-veiled analogy for the real Middle Eastern conflicts. But that veil is too thin. Anyone coming here for monster action will be largely disappointed, and anyone expecting an allusionary sci-fi commentary on American foreign policy will just find a commentary on American foreign policy.

Dark Continent is the debut feature of director (and, here, co-writer) Tom Green, who previously helmed half-a-dozen episodes of E4’s excellent “superheroes with ASBOs” drama Misfits and a three-part BBC One thriller that seems to be as forgettable as most three-part BBC One thrillers. Famously, the original Monsters was Gareth Edwards’ first film too: he wrote, directed, designed, shot, and did all the CGI for it single-handed, for $500,000. On the back of it, he was immediately given the keys to a $160 million Godzilla reboot and the first-ever live-action Star Wars spin-off movie (whose full title seems to change monthly, but is currently Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). Will Green be so fortunate? All those reviews suggest not.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Green does a bad job. The film is too long — tightening up the first and last 40-or-so minutes, to bring the total length down towards the original film’s 94 minutes, would’ve been beneficial; and that pointless wannabe-Apocalypse Now voiceover, which comes and goes before disappearing entirely, should’ve been scrapped in post (if not sooner) — but, otherwise, I think he’s produced a well-made film. It’s also prettily shot by DP Christopher Ross, making great use of location shooting in Jordan to create an authentic and beautiful desert landscape. Some of the battle sequences are enmeshed in rote hyper-grainy ShakyCam, but you can’t have everything. That’s backed up with excellent CGI. Not only does it place the various monsters convincingly in the landscape but, occasionally, the pairing of the classy photography and well-realised graphics make for something aesthetically beguiling.

I do think Dark Continent is better than most reviews give it credit for, but it’s not exactly a movie of the greatest or most original insight, and — their added visual interest aside — it didn’t need to be a Monsters movie. Indeed, if it had just been a straight Middle East war movie, perhaps some critics would’ve been kinder, because at least they would’ve known what they were getting. If you liked the first film then there’s absolutely no guarantee you’ll enjoy this — it’s not the same kind of film at all — but the worst sequel of the decade? Not even close.

3 out of 5

Monsters: Dark Continent is released on UK DVD, Blu-ray and VOD today.

Godzilla (2014)

2015 #31
Gareth Edwards | 123 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & Japan / English | 12 / PG-13

GodzillaThe second attempt at a US re-imagining of Godzilla received mixed reviews last summer, though there can be little doubt that it’s much more successful than the first, Roland Emmerich’s 1998 attempt. Where that movie basically starred a generic dinosaur-esque creature, here British director Gareth Edwards (director of the exceptional, five-star low-budgeter Monsters) has endeavoured to stay faithful to the style and structure of the original Japanese movies starring the titular beast, albeit brought in to the Hollywood fold with slick storytelling and a modern CG sheen.

In many respects, Edwards’ work is the real star of the film. Other elements are successful, but sometimes fitfully so, and it’s his choices and vision at the helm that hold the whole together. This is none more obvious than in the way the movie treats the titular beast — essentially, it’s a giant tease. It’s a slight spoiler to say when he first turns up on screen (the unknowing, like myself, will expect him in one specific bit considerably earlier), but we’re made to wait for it… and then Edwards abruptly cuts away. Godzilla disappears off under the water, heading for the next plot location, and he’s off screen for yonks. When he does (literally) resurface, we’re again teased with glimpses, and any full-on shot is a quick few frames before jumping to something else.

Some viewers and/or critics have questioned this as a bizarre attempt not to show the monster, but they’re entirely missing the point, and Edwards’ genuine filmmaking technique. It all becomes obvious in the finale (or should, anyway, but clearly some people don’t get it): after over an hour and a half of teasing us, there’s an almighty brawl, and Godzilla is shown off in all his glory. Edwards isn’t trying to hide the monster, he’s saving it. What is THAT?He’s denying us shots of it not to punish the viewer or to trick us, but literally to tease us, to build excitement and suspense and desire for the final battle. Too many people aren’t used to this — modern blockbusters have trained them for non-stop show-us-all-you’ve-got action from start to finish — and that’s a shame, and their loss, because Edwards’ method is superior to, and ultimately more entertaining than, 95% of other similar blockbusters.

It’s fair to say that around the monster action is a fairly rote plot. The human characters get some drama early on, but then are largely swept away by events. I can’t say I minded this too much — I don’t come to a Godzilla movie for the emotional relationships of the characters. At any rate, I’ve seen an equal number of reviews that criticise the film for not making more of the Aaron Taylor-Johnson/Elizabeth Olsen storyline, to those that think there’s too much of it and it should have been dropped. I guess it depends what you want from the movie — for me, Edwards almost hits the Goldilocks point of getting it just right, though I think Olsen is ill-served by how little she has to do.

The cast is full of actors who you might say are better than this — Bryan Cranston, David Strathairn, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe, Juliette Binoche — which, again, is a bone of contention for some. Why are such quality actors in this? Why are they given so little to do? Again, this is a decision I think worked. For one, they’re actors you’re not used to seeing in this type of movie, which immediately brings a freshness. For another, no, the script doesn’t give them all it could. But because they’re such good actors, they bring it anyway — Hawkins and Watanabe, in particular, bring all kinds of layers to their characters Layered looksthat simply aren’t present in the functional dialogue they have to work with, simply in the way they stand, the way they look at things… It’s not the focus of the film, it’ll pass many people by (indeed, it has), but I think there are some fine performances here. Not awards-winning ones, obviously, but in the hands of lesser actors, they would’ve been so much poorer.

If the human drama isn’t always up to scratch… actually, I’m going to stop myself there, because this is a blockbuster about giant monsters — how many of those have human drama that’s “up to scratch”? Very few, if any. I’m not saying that to excuse the film, but rather to point out that the fact it manages any at all (and it does) is a greater success than most of its ilk achieve. Nonetheless, the stars of the show are the action sequences. Rather than assault us with them, Edwards keeps them nicely spaced out. Each one feels different from the last — not an insignificant feat for a movie about a giant monster that stomps on things, which is more or less what these movies usually do ad infinitum. They’re clearly constructed, cleanly shot… I don’t always mind ShakyCam, but it’s too easy to do, and as such is most often used unintelligently. This is proof that a well-executed classical style is the way to go.

Perhaps the best thing of all is the sense of scale. I believed in the monsters’ size and the effect it had. That was something I never got from Pacific Rim (as I noted in my review). Some have claimed the monsters’ relative size shifts around, or that their effects on the environment are inconsistent (at one point Godzilla’s arrival causes a veritable tsunami; Godzilla-scalelater, he slips quietly into the bay). Maybe, maybe not, but they always look big — more importantly, they feel big. There are various reasons for this, including Edwards’ shot choices: we often see them from a human perspective on the ground; when we do see wider shots, they’re from suitably far away, or high up, like a helicopter shot (if it were real…) Too many directors shoot their giant monsters with angles and perspectives as if they’re human-sized, which makes them come across as human-sized even when there’s a building next to them, never mind when they’re in places without reference points (coughatsea,PacifcRimcough). Edwards never does this, and it pays off. More than once I regretted that I can never be bothered to go to the cinema any more, because I bet this looked stunning on the big screen (I know I’m certainly not alone in this feeling).

Another point worthy of praise is Bob Ducsay’s editing. It’s hard to convey in text exactly why, but the size of the monsters is used to wondrous effect when it comes to scene changes. For instance: we might be in part of the story following Olsen’s character. The monsters appear fighting in the background, so we follow the action. In the last shot of that particular sequence, the camera pans down to find Taylor-Johnson and pick up his thread of the story. The film does this multiple times throughout; it’s a distinct style, even. Written down like this it sounds kind of cheesy and forced, but it isn’t in the slightest: it’s subtle, seamless; I’d wager it goes unnoticed by most, even, but I was impressed.

Godzilla clearly isn’t a perfect film, but Edwards has done a great job of taking the essence of Toho’s long-running character (celebrating its 60th anniversary in the year of this film’s release) and rendering it in a Hollywood blockbuster style, one that’s pleasingly more classical (as it were) than the crash-bang-wallop instant-‘gratification’ style of In Marvel movies, they're brother and sistermost present big-budget summer tentpoles. That it got a little lost and under-appreciated in a summer of mega-hits is a real shame — it may not quite match summer 2014’s high points of X-Men: Days of Future Past or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, but, for this viewer at least, it edged closer to them than to Marvel’s two widely over-beloved offerings.

And it wraps itself up as a completely self-contained film to boot — bonus! A sequel is forthcoming, however, just as soon as Edwards is finished with his Star Wars rumoured-prequel. I think both films are something to really look forward to.

4 out of 5

Godzilla debuts on Sky Movies Premiere today at 4pm and 8pm.

Monsters vs Aliens (2009)

2014 #21
Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon | 84 mins* | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Monsters vs AliensThere seems to be a certain brand of animated film that I think looks dreadful so avoid, then I hear good things about, so I try it and find that, actually, they are really good. There was How to Train Your Dragon, then Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, and now — yes, you guessed it — there’s Monsters vs Aliens.

On her wedding day, Susan is struck by meteorite whose contents causes her to grow to 50 feet tall. Seized by the government and renamed Ginormica, she’s taken to a special facility that houses an array of other creatures: B.O.B., an indestructible blob; Dr. Cockroach, a part-insect mad scientist; the Missing Link, a prehistoric fish-ape hybrid; and Insectosaurus, a skyscraper-sized grub. But when evil alien Gallaxhar arrives seeking the energy that gave Ginormica her powers, it’s realised the only way to combat his giant robots is by unleashing the monsters. Yes, it’s The Avengers with ’50s B-movie monsters.

If that doesn’t sound like a fun concept, you’re probably already on a hiding to nothing. It has a love and understanding of B-movies that should keep many a genre fan happy, suggesting it was created for them almost as much as its true audience, namely the same kids as… well, every other US animation. I suppose in that regard it’s a bit like The Incredibles, still one of the best superhero movies in any form.
Monster Squad
That’s a big comparison to make, but one I think Monsters vs Aliens can withstand more often than not. The climax is a little samey — why do all action-y kids CGI movies seem to have the same final act? — but before then it has a nice line in satirical humour, bold and broad characters, and even some quality action sequences. This is not a film where someone had an idea and coasted on it, but where they poured in a lot of love and elements you might not expect — see: satire, in an American kids’ movie! Not to mention the emotion you’ll get from a giant moth. I mean seriously…

Computer-animated kids movies are two-a-penny these days, meaning if it doesn’t have “Pixar” above its logo or a number at the end of its title, there’s a good chance it’ll be brushed off as “oh, another one”. (Of course, to get the aforementioned number on a title you need a successful unnumbered one first — like the other two films I mentioned in my introduction, for example.) There’s probably a lot of dross that’s being rightfully ignored, but some gems seem to have passed by with less fanfare than their enjoyment-value merits. Megamind is one that comes to mind; Monsters vs Aliens is another.

4 out of 5

* Full running time is 94 minutes. A saving of 10 is what you get for watching it in a PAL version (i.e. sped-up 4%) created for broadcast TV (i.e. hardly any credits). ^