This gritty, gruelling science fiction/war movie, directed by Joe Miale (who also co-writes, with Rowan Athale), is an entry in a cycle of crisis tourism genre cinema – following the Monsters films and the The Dead movies in stranding hapless white Europeans in third world landscapes where the usual threats of these places are one-upped by fantastical intrusions (giant monsters from outer space, the zombie apocalypse). Here, the setting is Kenya – and the usual movie-version-of-Africa business of brushfire wars with child soldiers, ivory poachers, rogue army elements and warlords persists as a backdrop, though herds of towering robot drones with evaporation ray fireball bellies (a creepy effect) and a faster, spidery variety of killbot have been set loose by hovering alien motherships intent on harvesting humans for some unknown purpose. Though human harvests are plot points in H.G. Wells and The Quatermass Conclusion, they’re a relatively new alien invasion cinema convention – popularised by Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds and featured in the Skyline movies among others. In one of a few satirical touches, the locals aren’t even sure that the evil machines aren’t from America – though we’re told the invaders were drawn to high tech, and advanced countries completely devastated by the time the story gets going.
As in Monsters, the backdrop is deliberately vague so the film can concentrate on its odd couple as they travel through the warzone. An amnesiac American special forces soldier who takes the name Bo (Lee Pace) comes to in a police station cell next to hardbitten French doctor Nadia (Berenice Marlohe), with quizzical eyebrows to go with his fragmentary flashbacks, electrical arcs crackling all around and a sense that something more than ordinarily traumatising has recently happened to him. After saving Nadia from machete-wielding would-be rapists, Bo drags the woman on a vague quest whose destination keeps changing – first, he’s looking for an American military base, then a radar dish which might have survived the assault on technology (it hasn’t), then for answers about his mental state. The first two thirds of the film alternate encounters with dangerous humans and dangerous aliens, and rather overdo the evil African stereotypes, but the last act brings on a whole new set of tough Kenyan characters and lumps the yank in with a desperate scheme to unleash an EMP weapon against one of the motherships.
There’s a brief cameo for Jason Flemyng as a wounded photojournalist who fills in some backstory before begging to be put out of his misery, but most of the time is spent on the principles, with Pace and Marlohe bringing much-needed conviction to fairly thinly-conceived characters. The point of the film is the chaos, which is effectively conveyed with impressive locations – the elephants’ graveyard where Bo and Nadia are staked out as bait by poachers out to bring down a robot is especially striking – and effects work well above the average. It has coincidental parallels with Beyond Skyline, which similarly teams up an American action man with local resistance as a traditionally oppressed country fights against alien invaders, as well as its debt to the visions of the Monsters minifranchise (which headed to Africa in its sequel) and the rust-and-dust Afro-future of Neill Blimkamp. A relatively neat revelation late in the day goes some way towards binding the episodic storyline together, and sets up a climax which brings on more extras and ups the effects quotient. A little too familiar, but swift, exciting and edgy.