Dir: Tom Green. UK. 2014. 116mins
In Gareth Edwards’ near-homemade indie sci-fi hit Monsters, extra-terrestrial behemoths infested the tropical regions of the planet. The film was set in Mexico and was a road romance – surprisingly close to It Happened One Night in its heiress-and-reporter plot – taking place in the shadow of a global catastrophe.
The mash-up of science fiction and war film is more commonplace than the story told in Monsters, but there is a sense of escalation from the first film’s study of small human foibles and wonders to the chaos presented here.
In this higher-budgeted (yet still economical) sequel, which had its world premiere at the London Film Festival, the action shifts to North African deserts and the genre template is the gritty, antiheroic war movie, with nods to Platoon, Jarhead and (especially) The Hurt Locker. Here, hapless GIs have to contest with IEDs as well as ETs.
The American military are deployed against the monsters, but also find themselves fighting local insurgents who resent both foreign presences in their homeland. On a botched mission to rescue a lost patrol, Sergeant Noah Frater (Johnny Harris) – an assassination specialist — begins to spin out of control. Meanwhile, new grunt Michael Parkes (Sam Keeley), who has come to the war from the grimmer stretches of Detroit along with a tight-knit band of mostly short-lived brothers, realises the situation on the ground is crazier and less clear-cut than he thought.
Director Tom Green (who has worked on the UK TV series Misfits) and writer Jay Basu (The Dinsoaur Project) take over from Edwards, who has gone on to the enormously-budgeted Godzilla reboot, and tell another story set in the world established by Monsters, with different central characters (soldiers rather than civilians) and a different context. It has more and more ambitious monster effects, with astonishing and seamless insertion of giant unknowable tentacular things into arid landscapes. A helicopter’s close encounter with a tentacular appendage is the equal of any effect in Godzilla, for instance.
It’s also a much more male-centered film than the even-handed Monsters – women tend to have non-speaking wife/hooker/saintly native roles, while violent men agonise over their inner pains even as they lash out at everyone around them. The performances of a mostly-British cast are vivid and impressive, with especially fine work from Johnny Harris as the tough sergeant and Nicholas Pinnock as the most lively (and short-lived) of the platoon.
Like Aliens, it embraces the war movie but crucially isn’t an endorsement of militarism. Indeed, the behaviour of the American soldiers in a strange land they didn’t understand even before space creatures showed up are credibly foolish, callous and dangerous. The mash-up of science fiction and war film is more commonplace than the story told in Monsters, but there is a sense of escalation from the first film’s study of small human foibles and wonders to the chaos presented here. It’s a pointed, believable, unnervingly relevant contrast with gung ho invasion films like Independence Day, Battle Los Angeles or Battleship.
Like Monsters, it works towards a sequence that reveals something of the aliens’ reproductive cycles and encourages awe-struck characters to see the world anew. However, this last act becomes somewhat meandering as surviving soldiers stumble on well beyond the conclusions of their stories.
It preserves an essential mystery about the megaforms and the world they have trampled, and drops hints – especially in a memorable Detroit-set sequence where lowlifes stage a warehouse fight between a dog and an alien – of other stories as yet unexplored. Though international in flavour, the Monsters films represent a strong, distinctively British science fiction franchise that is likely to yield further sequels.
Production companies: Vertigo Films, 42
International sales: Protagonist Pictures, www.protagonistpictures.com
Producers: Allan Niblo, James Richardson, Rupert Preston, Rory Aitken, Ben Pugh
Executive producers: Gareth Edwards, Scoot McNairy
Screenplay: Tom Green, Jay Basu
Cinematography: Christopher Ross
Editor: Richard Graham
Production designer: Kristian Milsted
Music: Neil Davidge
Main cast: Sam Keeley, Johnny Harris, Sofia Boutella, Nicholas Pinnock, Joe Dempsie, Kyle Soller, Parker Sawyers