Mar 24 2011

Monsters

It may not be a traditional monster movie, but that is its greatest attribute. "Monsters" is thoughtful, human and beautiful: 3.5/4

Monsters is something of a marvel in filmmaking and genre.  Filmmaker Gareth Edwards shot the film with a shoestring budget and a cinema verite approach, which bleeds into the film’s overall style of subtly over spectacle.  Subtly may be something of a blasphemous attribute in regards to the monster move genre, but then again, Monsters greatest strength lies in its very human story.

Monster movies, it seems, are making a comeback; specifically alien invasion-monster movies.  Sometimes these threats from on high come in the form of beasts, other times they are organized battalions hell-bent on Earth’s destruction.  Whatever the breed of the extra-terrestrial foe, this new wave of films, from Cloverfield to the upcoming Battle: Los Angeles, are preoccupied with a sense of realism in an attempt to blur, or at least twist the lines between fiction and fact for the sake of engrossing, awe-inspiring fantasy.

At the beginning of the film we are told that a space probe carrying proof of alien life crashed in Mexico, and giant creatures began appearing in the forests and, occasionally, trampling about in the cities.  The U.S. military responded by building a massive wall across the U.S./Mexico border and routinely launch various attacks on what they call,  “ the infected zone.”

Six years later, photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is ordered to track down his boss’ daughter Samantha (Whitney Able), and get her from Costa Rica to the U.S.- not an easy task, as the U.S. military is halting all travel through Mexico in order to better contain the creatures.  The two then embark on foot through the infected zone, evade contact with the creatures, and try to reach the border.

When coming up with the story, Gareth Edwards found himself more interested in a world after an invasion, where the presence of monsters was “considered completely normal.”  In Monsters, the creatures are indeed tolerated and accepted as a reality in living in the region; one of the locals even remarks, “If you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you.”  Although the giant, luminous, octopus-looking creatures are hardly passive, they are not much different in behavior from other wild animals.  As far as the locals are concerned, they act much like the residents of areas in which earthquakes, hurricanes or tornadoes are common; they just deal with it.

Such an attitude towards monsters makes for an unusual monster movie, but then again, Monsters is not a monster movie in the traditional sense.  Truth be told, Monsters is more of a road movie than anything else; literally, of course, because of the journey at hand, but the film’s structure and style is also reminiscent of the genre.  The film makes use of the space of the Mexican wilderness, and the characters develop through minimal, natural dialogue (most of which was improvised) and reveal themselves through quiet actions.  Edwards’ focus on the serenity of nature amidst chaos- from man and beast alike- gives the film a stark beauty, and McNairy and Able’s chemistry provide a tender humanity that proves crucial to the film.

The lingering shots of nature are a sharp contrast to those that feature the monsters; Edwards uses fast cuts and darkness that keeps the creatures largely unseen, not unlike Jaws.  Granted, such restraint concerning the monster effects alongside the reverential treatment of nature adds to Monsters’ genre idiosyncrasies, but these things are attributed to the film’s small budget as much as they are the filmmaker’s artistic choices.  However, like the best of low budget cinema, Edwards’ resourcefulness supersedes the possible limitations of Monsters’ small budget and provides a unique spin on a genre riddled with tried and true conventions.

The misstep Monsters makes is a flickering political subtext or undertone that concerns immigration and U.S. militarization.  The problem is, these issues do virtually nothing for the story, nor do they offer any real political commentary; they are just there in the background.  It is possible that too many people assumed some kind of political comment upon the film’s initial release given the recent trend of monster movies today (see: District 9), but upon seeing the U.S. border in the film – which resembles a new, industrial Great Wall- it feels too much like a foreboding nod to a relevant political argument that cannot be ignored.

Monsters is an impressive film; it takes what could have been a big budgeted popcorn film and went in a very different direction for a fraction of most monster movies today.  Some may not enjoy Monsters because of what it is, or even for what it is not, but frankly, there is a plethora of monster films featuring metropolitan destruction and people running away in every which direction.  It is good to see that someone has taken the smaller, human-centric approach to a genre that demands more, more, more, and still managed to deliver a film about monsters.

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