It is April 2017, in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan, and if there is one thing that we know, it is that Neil Marshall’s The Lair is going to end with a bang. We know this because text at the very beginning reveals that the rest of the film will show the sequence of events which leads American command to drop a bunker-busting MOAB in the region.
There is certainly a lot of insurgent activity in the area, constantly endangering recently downed RAF pilot Lieutenant Kate Sinclair (Charlotte Kirk), the American soldiers left to guard a nearby outpost, and a small group of SAS men. Yet such an extreme, explosive response will be drawn from the Coalition by something else. For this ‘Dirty Half Dozen’, like the squaddies in Marshall’s feature debut Dog Soldiers (2002), are about to encounter a monstrous hybrid, reawoken in the bowels of a secret Russian bunker, which preys on locals and occupiers alike.
Much science fiction, like many a war film, is concerned with engaging the Other, and the beleaguered soldiers in The Lair – themselves just the latest in a long line of invaders – really do come to recognise something of themselves in their foe. Here their daring last stand is just another flashpoint of endless failed foreign adventurism in Afghanistan – and significantly, we last see the survivors stuck in a rut that is as much metaphorical as literal.
Marshall gleefully folds gonzo genre elements (his real love, one suspects) into these geopolitics. Plummeting in a plane and fighting monsters, plucky single mother Sinclair is like Chloë Grace Moretz’s American flyer in Roseanne Liang’s Shadow in the Cloud (2020), only English and in the 21st century. The Americans’ disgraced Commanding Officer Finch (Jamie Bamber) sports a Plissken-esque eyepatch. A character is introduced only to be killed instantly, to the overt, inevitably ironising accompaniment of a Wilhelm scream. There are references to the Top Gun, Alien, Outpost and Predator franchises, and a massively crazy conspiracy theory suggesting an ulterior motive (rooted in sci-fi) for the invasion of Afghanistan by first the Russians and now the Coalition. And even as this ragtag, culturally mixed group finds an unlikely ally in mujahideen driver Kabir (Hadi Khanjanpour), they face a new kind of enemy that is equally the result of improbable mergers.
The problem, though, is that everything in the film feels tired and second-hand, with characters just going through the overfamiliar motions and routines. After five of the soldiers are shown walking fully armed alongside one another one in ‘cool’ slow motion, one character delivers the utterly bland line, “Gentlemen, let’s boogie,” to which another responds, “I wish I’d said that.” It is all a bit pleased with itself and its own posturing tough-guy clichés – and the wildly erratic accents, with obviously English actors playing folk from different parts of America (or Wales!), serve only to underline this film’s in-your-face inauthenticity.
The alien antagonists are ruthlessly efficient hunters in one scene, and in the next barely seem to have noticed that an armed, not at all quiet squadron has entered their domain – and even when the human (as opposed to half-human) players make their Descent into the darkness, their characterisation remains strictly at surface level, all cartoonish stereotypes.
There is comedy, bravado, bantering cameraderie, freaky monster mechanics, and shock and gore by the bucketload – but The Lair always feels as though it is disinterring long-buried rotten old tropes without having anything new to do or say with them. It is both a B-movie, and an empty pastiche of one, with far less bite than the creatures at its core. Even the bang that inevitably comes at the end whimpers.
The Lair had its world première at FrightFest 2022