Know Your Story
Monsters: Dark Continent (2014)
Directed By: Tom Green
A few years ago I watched MONSTERS (2010) and was pleasantly surprised by a fairly low-profile (and low budget) Sci-Fi road trip. So I was excited when a follow-up was announced and was looking forward to seeing where it took the story. The information that followed suggested a detour from the original to a more “action” oriented sequel, a sort of ALIEN to ALIENS type leap, so my interest was even more piqued.
Well, I finally got myself together after finding Dark Continent on Netflix and thought I would give it ago.
In a nutshell, the story follows a squad of soldiers tasked with keeping an eye on local insurgents in the Middle East, while fighting the expanding menace of the aliens from the original film. Eventually, the squad are given a mission to find a lost patrol and return them home from behind enemy lines and from within the infected zone, where the aliens roam freely.
Unfortunately I ended up watching it in two sittings over the course of a week, which wasn’t ideal, but it did give me the opportunity to see a Tweet by Debbie Moon (who was watching it at the same time) which expressed one of my concerns about the film:
Ah, they’ve remembered this is a monster movie. 16 minutes in.
— Debbie Moon (@DebbieBMoon) January 19, 2016
…for a film with the word “MONSTERS” in the title, there were very few Monsters throughout the film.
The difficulty with the film, for me, was that it seemed to be trying to be more than the sum of its parts. It starts off with a Deer-Hunter-lite sequence introducing us to the soldiers we are supposed to be rooting for on the night before they ship out. Bonding, men-stuff, strippers and drugs are the order of the day and a new-born child for one of the crew – yep, we now know who is buying the farm first!
It then moves to the war zone and interactions with the indigenous population who are at odds with both the soldiers and the monsters. Some support their actions, others don’t because of the collateral damage that comes with bombing massive monsters in populated areas. We see some monsters from afar, but don’t engage. We follow the squad as they recce a small settlement looking for evidence of IEDs. We do get to see a monster here, but only briefly as it is chased off by some screaming and shotguns.
When the mission proper shows up, we are well into the film and still only looking for a lost patrol, not hunting down monsters. An IED scuppers their plans early on and there is a firefight as the soldiers scramble for cover and a few of them die. Actually, this sequence is well done and tense as the action ramps up. Kidnap, torture and escape follow. Some monsters in the dark, but none threaten the survivors.
There is the discovery of a burnt out school bus and dilemma over what to do with the survivor (a small child) when lost in the desert and dehydrated. This is followed by a meeting with friendlies and a “spiritual” section as the “good” soldier watches a monster dispersing spores to create a new generation of beasties.
The film draws to a close as they find the lost patrol (dead) and the commanding solider goes a bit crazy, Apocalypse Now-style, as he questions his actions and the reasons for him being there.
The film ends with the “birth” of a giant Monster… but we still don’t get to do anything with it. Maybe they are setting us up for Part III?
And there we go. A film with “Monsters” in the title, but few monsters in the film.
My personal view is that the film is not sure what it wants to be or exactly who it’s target audience is. Is it a war film? Is it Sci-Fi? Is it an exploration of the psychology of warfare? I think it tried to explore themes around just WHO the Monsters really are in warfare, pitting the US Military against the local “insurgents” and population. The Monsters are a third, literal, option, but were not involved in the story in any meaningful way. In fact, they could be taken out completely and the story would still have worked as a war film.
Whether this is a good or bad film is up to you; remember this is just my opinion and what I took away from it. Despite all that the film was still okay for what it was; but that just wasn’t what I was expecting. However, I think it could have been so much better if it had known what story it was trying to tell. The soldiers’? The Monsters’? The Locals’? The Insurgents’?
If you use “Monsters” in your title, the audience will want to see Monsters – but the hopes for “ALIENS in the desert” were not fulfilled.
So, my take away from all this rambling?
KNOW YOUR STORY.
When you set out to tell a story, make sure you know what story you want to tell and the audience you are going to tell it to. You may not know exactly how you are going to tell it on the first draft, but you need to know “what”. If you don’t you may lose focus, diluting the story you wanted to tell with diversions and plot tangents you don’t need.
If YOU don’t know what story you are trying to tell, you can be damn sure your AUDIENCE won’t.
But that’s me. How about you? Do you think this is important? Do you KNOW your stories before you start writing? Do you think it is better to know before you write, so you know what direction you are going in?
Feel free to comment below!
- Pixar Rules of Story #2 – Know your Audience
- Pixar Rules of Story #3 – Your Theme will Out
- Pixar Rules of Story #14 – Theme: The Heart of your Story