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Monday, March 03, 2014

Movie Review: Monsters (2010) (A SFF Film Odyssey Selection)

I didn't realize until pulling up the IMDB page for Monsters (2010) that its writer and director, Gareth Edwards, is also the director of the upcoming Godzilla (2014).  And that makes a ton of sense.  While Monsters is hardly Godzilla-ish in form, it does take what is a painfully small budget for a kaiju film (supposedly $500k) and put it to good use, providing a measured and sometimes look into humanity's interaction with nature and with himself.  In short, where Cloverfield fell into all the wrong traps, Monsters simply avoids them in favor of what should have mattered in Abrams' viral-media monstrosity:  the characters.

The plot of Monsters is fairly straight forward.  Six years ago, enormous alien creatures arrived on Earth.  Everyone believes this is an invasion and quarantines the "infected zones" in hopes of keeping the aliens from taking more territory.  Jump ahead to the present:  a photojournalist in search of the perfect shot of the enormous creatures is forced by his boss to escort Samantha, the boss' daughter, out of Mexico to the American border before the next cycle of aggression threatens the quarantine borders.  In their struggle to escape, Samantha and Andrew learn about one another's past:  what they're running from, what they're running towards, and who they really are in a world that wants them to conform to contradictory identities.

I'd like to take a moment to focus on the last line of my description, because I think one of the points of this film is to question the nature of the title.  What does it mean to be a monster?  One of the things I had expected from this film, particularly given the locale and the ways in which places south of the American border are typically portrayed, was a sea of humans doing horrifically violent things to one another.  In many respects, I think that was a narrative this needed, if not in a direct allegory about "the third world," then certainly as a commentary on what desperation does to people.  But the film never goes there.  Instead, it opts for humans betraying one another on a relatively mundane level while the "monsters" are shown to be, as I expected, misunderstood.  It also tried to convey a message about the interaction of man and nature, particularly when a group of armed escorts tell Samantha and Andrew how these enormous aliens fit into the new ecosystem -- they likewise convince us that we really don't know what to think about the creatures; thus, we shouldn't come to any hard conclusions on the matter.  When we finally see the creatures, that narrative is already apparent, and the film handles that revelatory moment with a deliberate minimalism:  the only ones who seem to have any significant dialogue are the aliens (albeit, it is animalistic and unintelligible to Samantha and Andrew, as well as to us).

That said, I don't think the narrative about humanity's "monsters" is given the attention it deserves.  While Samantha and Andrew do get screwed over a number of times in this movie, the threat this poses always seems muted by the fact that there's really no reason for Samantha and Andrew to enter the quarantine zone to escape when they could simply head south (maps in the film suggest this is a possibility).  The monstrosity of man, then, is hardly monstrous.  It is mundane and largely uninspired.  A corrupt ferry worker?  A thieving "prostitute"?  A thieving and corrupt armed transport system?  All here, and all are resolved with uncharacteristic simplicity (or sort of ignored).  In effect, the dread these situations should have produced never came to fruition.  This isn't a terribly suspenseful film, even though it needs to be.  It's a numbed film, one which opts for an almost extreme minimalism by the standards of the kaiju format that I think something really does get lost in the translation.

Part of the flaw of the film's minimalistic approach likewise limits the performances of the lead actors:  Scoot McNairy (Andrew) and Whitney Able (Samantha).  Overall, their performances are serviceable, but not as emotional as one might expect given a) the situations they're in throughout the film (the verge of death), and b) the situations they were in before everything went to hell (Samantha and her broken relationship with her fiance; Andrew with his "I'm the father, but I can't tell him because it would confuse him" scenario).  In a weird way, I thought I was watching an anime along the lines of, say, Makoto Shinkai, with minimal, limited performances (The Place Promised in Our Early Days, for example), but what differentiates Shinkai from Monsters is a kind of Hemingway-an iceberg effect, in which the larger plot concerns are made almost secondary to the internal conflicts of the characters and their struggle with how to express it; even with that minimalism, a film like The Place Promised in Our Early Days gives in to the necessity for emotional displays in scenarios where the internal explodes over the external.

Monsters, however, contains so few of these bursting moments that the emotional connection to the world is sometimes lost.  Andrew has one incredibly tense scene in which he engages in a phone call with the boy we now know is his son (but who himself thinks Andrew is just a family friend); McNairy loses composure and struggles to keep his voice straight as his body and face contort in agony -- the intensity of this scene is notable because it is so separate from the film's previous performances.  Samantha has a similar moment at the sight of several dead bodies, including that of a young child.  But everywhere else, it's as if these characters haven't entered a certain kind of hell; they seem detached, but without a clear reason for it.

Though I've largely criticized the film for many of its important aspects, I will say that in terms of the portrayal of characters over spectacle, Monsters succeeds.  These are characters, not caricatures.  They have real motivations and flaws, and these are presented evenly throughout the narrative so it is clear that they are supposed to be the real concern, not the critters wandering about in the dark.  Though I know Godzilla will be more interested in the spectacle than Monsters, I do appreciate that Edwards saw fit to make a kaiju film that was so invested in the lives of its characters over a weak found footage fetish beset with college kid caricatures.

Monsters also succeeds in its attempts to present a kind of kaiju sensibility.  The creatures are mysterious and shown infrequently to maintain that mystery.  For a film with such a small budget, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Edwards didn't feel it necessary to opt for cheaper graphics to put the creatures on the screen for longer periods.  If this were a Syfy film, it would have spent half its runtime presenting painfully bad CG renders; instead, Edwards gifts us a simplified portrayal that is both gorgeous and wondrous.  One of the ending scenes, in which a lightning storm provides brief flashes of the creatures walking in the dark is one of the most haunting and gorgeous scenes in kaiju cinema -- or so I believe.

Likewise, I appreciated Edwards' use of local color in his work.  This easily could have been a film set in some generic U.S. city, but it is instead set and shot in Central America (Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Mexico, to be specific).  Though they play fairly small roles, many locals are also part of the film, though I suspect much of this was a matter of budgetary necessity than anything else.  Still, the attention to locals, however limited (and, perhaps, concerning), is something to appreciate if only because it's good to see in a film set just over tomorrow's horizon.  Maybe that's just me, though...

Overall, though I enjoyed this film a lot more than Cloverfield or the horrendous Godzilla (1998), it is also a flawed work.  Would I recommend seeing it?  Absolutely.  It's a film that deserves a lot more attention than it received when it first graced the big screen (and the little screen, if I recall correctly) in 2010.  When it is on the mark, it is a treat.  If anything, I'll certainly remember it in the years to come.

Directing: 3/5
Cast: 3/5
Writing: 3.5/5
Visuals: 4/5
Adaptation: NA
Overall: 3.375/5 (67.5%)
Inflated Grade: B- (for compelling kaiju style, decent visuals, and solid locations)
Value: $8.00 (based on $10.50 max)


This post is part of my 2010:  A SFF Film Odyssey feature.  Past reviews, discussions, and so on can be found on this list.

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