October 26, 2010

Monsters

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Monsters

SCIENCE FICTION:

United Kingdom, 2010

U.S. Release Date:

2010-10-29

Running Length:

1:34

MPAA Classification:

R (Profanity, Violence)

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

2.35:1

Cast:

Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able

Director:

Gareth Edwards

Screenplay:

Gareth Edwards

Cinematography:

Gareth Edwards

Music:

Jon Hopkins

U.S. Distributor:

Magnolia Pictures

Subtitles:

none


Who said science fiction films have to be expensive? According to multiple sources, the total production cost for Gareth Edwards' feature debut, Monsters, was south of $20,000. That's a remarkable achievement for a movie whose subject matter involves major military engagements between the U.S. armed forces and a bunch of giant aliens. Edwards gets around some of the financial difficulties by making this more of a road trip/character story than a traditional monster movie, but there are payoff scenes in which a fair amount of CGI is necessary. It's not top-notch, but it's good enough to be convincing in the circumstances, and far better than state-of-the-art special effects from a couple of decades ago. All-in-all, however, Monsters works not because of its representation of alien creatures or its somewhat derivative back story but because of the atypical manner in which it approaches the character-based narrative.

According to a series of captions that begin Monsters, an Earth-based space probe sent into the solar system to collect samples crash landed in Central America upon re-entry. Not long after, alien creatures began appearing near the crash site and a quarantined "infected zone" was established just south of the U.S. border, covering approximately half of Mexico. That was six years ago. Today, the Mexican and U.S. militaries continue to wage a war against the aliens with the purpose of keeping them contained. The protagonists of Monsters become caught up in this struggle when they're in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sam (Whitney Able) is in Mexico for unspecified reasons and is injured in an alien attack. Photojournalist Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is sent to her rescue by her father, who is Kaulder's boss. The two embark upon a difficult journey across northern Mexico to the United States that is complicated by a 48-hour time limit and an increased danger from the monsters, who are multiplying and spreading.

Like most road trips, the one in Monsters is more about the characters than it is about their journey. It's about the relationship that builds between Sam and Kaulder. Initially, they are wary co-travelers bound by a common goal. As time passes, they become friends and eventually fall in love. In fact, one could argue that the romantic aspect is more in the foreground than the monster movie one. Although Edwards' script occasionally makes cultural and societal observations (such as his point that Kaulder can get $50K for a picture of a child killed by a monster but nothing for a smiling little boy or girl), there are no overriding messages. There's almost certainly an allegorical element to the Wall - a massive structure built along the U.S./Mexico border designed to keep the aliens out - but it's not italicized in a way that comes across as preachy. It's also possible to view this plot element as pragmatic and logical under the circumstances.

As a result of its themes, approach, and/or style, Monsters recalls three other recent science fiction movies: The Mist, Cloverfield, and District 9. It's doubtful that any of these were direct inspirations, but the guerilla approach to making sci-fi well below the expected budget level is as evident in Monsters as it was in each of these. The crutch of relying too much on visual excess has been removed, forcing the filmmakers to concentrate on more interesting aspects like character development, dialogue, and narrative. Transformers doesn't need these things; Monsters does - and it's all the better for it.

The film's structure, which initially appears to be straightforward, offers a surprise that is only likely to be recognized late in the proceedings, if at all. (Possible Spoilers follow.) The movie's prologue is its epilogue. The opening scene, which features a military convoy being attacked, is in fact the event that follows the movie's final pre-closing credits sequence. It advances the story fractionally and forces a re-interpretation of what the ending appears to be. Unfortunately, this is likely to be frustrating to theatrical viewers who can't rewind the film, unlike those who see it on pay TV or DVD.

There is nothing "hard" about Monsters' science fiction. The difference between Edwards' take on the monster movie and what might be proffered by a director working with the backing of a big studio is that circumstances have forced Monsters to focus on something other than pyrotechnics, eye-popping visual effects, and complex action scenes. As a result, the production is more of a story and less of a faux amusement park ride. The instances of suspense and tension exist in service of the narrative, not the other way around. Edwards deserves credit not for having made a science fiction monster movie on a shoestring budget, but having made a good science fiction monster movie on a shoestring budget.

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