A Different Kind of Illegal Alien
You could say that “Monsters” (opening November 5 at Landmark’s Ken Cinema) is an art house take on “Cloverfield.” And for me that's a good thing.
I will admit up front that I did not like “Cloverfield.” I was excited about the project (just because I adore monster movies) but was severely disappointed in the execution. When I stated that opinion people told me in very precise terms how I needed to be killed. So I just wanted to get that out of the way before I begin my review of “Monsters,” a film that tackles a similar type of story and does it so much better and simpler.
"Monsters" is set in the near future after giant alien creatures have landed on earth. The U.S. has quarantined the creatures in an “infected zone” in northern Mexico. Director Gareth Edwards has said that his film begins where most monster movies end. So we never see an alien invasion but rather catch up with Earth a few years after the aliens have settled it.
Scoot McNairy plays Andrew, a photojournalist who's been asked to escort his publisher's daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) back to the U.S. But things don't go as planned and the two end up having to walk across the infected zone. This allows them to see – in a very intimate sort of way – how aliens have affected life on Earth.
Both “Cloverfield” and “Monsters” deal with a creature (and creatures) that threaten humankind’s existence, and a group of characters in transit and trying to survive. The things I didn’t like about “Cloverfield” were the annoying and contrived use of shakycam; characters that I disliked so much I was rooting for the monster to eat them immediately; and a reluctance to ever let us get a good look at the creature. “Monsters,” on the other hand, avoids the first person camera gimmick, gives us characters we can care about, and shows us some very cool creatures.
But by calling itself “Monsters,” the film also sets up some expectations that may cause people to leave the theater frustrated. The title may imply more emphasis on monsters, and lead one to expect more action or at least more interaction between monsters and humans. But “Monsters” -- in part because of its low budget and in part because of what the filmmaker wanted to do – is small, low key and quiet. It’s almost the antithesis of a sci-fi action film, and that is likely to frustrate and anger people who come in expecting “War of the Worlds” or “Aliens.”
“Monsters” gives us a glimpse of its tentacled, Cthulu -like creatures in the opening minutes and I appreciated that. No lengthy build up or contrived tension about the reveal. And the creatures are cool! They are gigantic, octopus-like glowing creatures that tower over cities. It appears that they “infect” trees that then become hosts to the eggs waiting to hatch. We do not see a lot of the creatures but we do see a lot of the damage they have wreaked as well as a few dead carcasses. We also see the way humans are learning to live along side them. In fact, one of the things I enjoyed about the film is the way it showed how life adjusts to this alien invasion. This is not about the end of the world but rather how life goes rather mundanely on even after something catastrophic.
So we see how governments have reacted. The U.S. has built a huge wall to keep the creatures – and the Mexicans as well – on their side of the border. In Latin America, enterprising businessmen charge outrageous fees for people to cross "the infected zone" and get to the U.S. The news reports on attacks and damage from the aliens almost as if they were doing traffic reports. And the interest the media does show in the aliens is typically sensational. Andrew notes he gets nothing for pictures of happy kids but a hefty fee for shots showing children that have been killed by the creatures. As for the locals, they have come to expect the creatures to occasionally invade and occasionally kill. But since most of the people we meet are poor, they have little choice other than to stay where they are and make the best of it.
This is a science fiction film in much the same way that "Children of Men" was. Both films put the science and the special effects in the background because both films are concerned with human stories. In the case of "Monsters," we get a love story playing out in the foreground and we come to like the characters.
Writer-director-cinematographer-production designer Gareth Edwards shot his film for a budget of around $15,000. That's not even the snack budget for "Cloverfield." He reportedly worked with off the shelf consumer cameras and equipment and then shot on the fly in Mexico. He uses his locations well, playing up the bureaucracy of the border crossing and the eeriness of the jungle. Like Guillermo del Toro, he shows sympathy for the monsters. He suggests that the creatures are just trying to adapt to their new home and make the best of it. Edwards doesn't have a lot of scenes with the creatures but when he shows them, he is willing to give us more than a good look and the scenes are almost poetic. Andrew and Samantha find themselves watching the creatures interact and rather than responding with fear, they look on with a sense of wonder and awe. And so do we.
"Monsters" impressively shows what someone with few resources can come up with so it is somewhat frustrating that Edwards' script is the weakest link in his film. The premise of a mismatched couple forced on the road and unexpectedly falling in love is by no means fresh. Only the performances of the leads and the monsters bring freshness to the story. Plus, the leisurely pace with its emphasis on a kind of improvised naturalism does get tedious at times, just as real life does. But on the plus side, Edwards reveals a nice eye for detail. So check what's on the TV screens and the graffiti on the walls to appreciate Edwards attention to detail.
"Monsters" (rated R for language), despite its title, ends up feeling rather slight and small. Whether audiences embrace it will depend a lot on what expectations they go in with. The film is a kind of thinking person's sci-fi with an eye toward creating realism and a sense of compassion for the creatures. For me it proved to be a mixed success but what tips it toward the positive are the creatures. These monsters are so visually enticing and awe-inspiring that I can't resist.
Companion viewing: "Children of Men," "The Call of Cthulu," "The Quiet Earth," "Distric 9," "Godzilla"