(As a heads-up, this one gets a bit spoilery.)
This one’s going to be a bit different from most of my posts. See, usually when I write something up, I’m working from notes that I jotted down immediately after watching the movie. Just enough to capture what I see as the important points before they slip my mind, and then I flesh them out into a post anywhere from 3 to 6 days later depending on my schedule. This one, though, I’m doing completely off the top of my head, two days after watching it, not so much because I don’t need the notes as because it won’t quite get out of my brain. I didn’t originally plan to watch it with a writeup in mind, but it won’t get out of my head.
Whatever I was expecting out of Monsters: Dark Continent as a sequel to Monsters, it sure as shit wasn’t this. And I’m still not entirely sure if that’s a good or bad thing. It’s been awhile since a movie left me this unsettled.
Monsters was the story of a world in which the crash-landing of a deep-space probe returning to Earth ended up infesting Mexico with alien life forms, none of which seem to be intelligent. Some of them were dangerous, and there were deaths. So life went on, much as always, only we built an even larger wall on the U.S./Mexico border, and Mexico is divided by the alien-infested “Infected Zone.” Two people - stranded in Mexico by bad luck and bad decisions - have to make their way north to the border before the U.S. starts carpet-bombing the shit out of Mexico to stop the infestation, and this means making their way through the Infected Zone.
Now, it’s ten years later, and the monsters are just as much - if not more - a fact of the world as they were before. They’ve spread, because apparently carpet-bombing Ground Zero didn’t do jack shit. So we’re...still carpet-bombing them, and the story has shifted to the Middle East, where they’re all over the deserts. And we meet Michael, Frankie, Karl, and Shaun, four friends who have grown up rough in Detroit and enlisted in the military because they really wanted to get the fuck out of Detroit and the fates that surely awaited them there. We meet them on their last day in Detroit before they ship out.
They’re going to go kill monsters.
But the first film was hopeful, ultimately about connection and understanding. I’ve glibly described it to people as “Before Sunrise with giant alien beasts” and though that’s definitely a smartassed take on it, it’s not really wrong. This film, as befits its change of locale, is unremittingly bleak. Our four protagonists aren’t unsympathetic, but they’re not not unsympathetic either. They’re crude and aggressive, guys from a rough neighborhood who have been trained up into killers. They spend their last night snorting coke, drinking, smoking weed, and fucking strippers. They go to a dogfight with an ugly twist - a pitbull versus a small alien. It’s relentlessly ugly and ends with both animals dead, a long unblinking shot on the bloodied corpses, dead for no good reason. This is the world they think they are leaving behind. When they get to Camp Renegade, their base of operations, Sergeants Forrest and Prater explain the situation. They’re going to be spending more time patrolling the towns and trying to root out insurgents and dodge IEDs than they are taking down monsters. And then the mission comes, the one they’ve been waiting for, the one that takes them into heavily monster-infested territory to find out what happened to a patrol that hasn’t reported back.
And it’s this point, as you might expect, as everything spirals into nightmare, as everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and soon enough, we’re almost inhabiting a nightmare version of the first film - two people wandering through a foreign landscape, among suspicious or openly hostile locals, dodging humans and monsters alike in search of home and some sort of answer. But just as the two people in the first film are drawn closer together by their journey, the two men here are driven further and further apart - from each other, and from their essential humanity, in the service of survival and a mission brief that becomes, as things continue, simultaneously the least important thing facing them and the only sure anchor to certainty they have. And instead of being witnesses to death and horror, they are complicit agents in death and horror. They are the ones leaving bodies behind, not so much the monsters. It’s a static film, with lots of voice overs and long closeups and long vista shots. It’s long stretches of nothing partitioned by moments of blood, fire, and panic. It is corpses upon corpses, the wreckage of our good intentions. And always, the monsters roar in the background, and the jets thunder, and the fire rolls over the dunes, and this dark reflection of the first film leaves me shaken at its unrelenting grimness, at the way nothing is spared. This is just how the world is now, and you are in it. You are bathing in ashes and death, and that will never change.
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