There have been quite a few films in recent years that sneak themselves in as one genre when they are actually best described as something else. When done successfully, they end up going beyond the notion of established genre and stand on their own as a whole new thing. Today I bring you a sweet love story, hiding inside a road movie, all bundled up as an alien invasion flick. Something for everybody?
Always lock up your passport.
Six years ago, the possibility of alien life in our solar system became a reality. A NASA probe sent to bring back samples broke up in re-entry over Mexico. Soon after, new creatures started to appear in the north of the country. Giant, tentacled creatures. Now, half of Mexico is a quarantined “infected zone” and the US has built a huge, fortified wall the entire length of the border. An American photojournalist working in San Jose is sent to find his publisher’s daughter and escort her back to the States, but the last ferry for the next six months leaves in just two days…
Gareth Edwards’ Monsters posits the reality of life after the monster movie. What happens when the dust settles and the massive aliens are still around? How long do you continue running around screaming, and what would life be like when you went back to just getting on with it? In this world, what happens is that we close off half of Mexico and go back to work. Much like District 9 was an analogy of Apartheid wrapped up in a fuck-awesome sci-fi bow, Monsters looks at the very real issue of illegally immigration from Mexico to America. It would be unfair to either movie to compare the two any more deeply though; they both stand tall entirely on their own.
he title of this film is very telling, so much so that it almost renders the subtext moot. All throughout the movie itself, the aliens are usually referred to as creatures. When they interact with humans and end up destroying and killing, their behaviour can be rationalised as defending themselves from attack, or exploring this world they find themselves in and simply not knowing their own strength. There does not appear to be any malice in their actions. So if they aren’t the monsters, who is? Maybe it’s the travel agent in Mexico who tries to charge $5,000 for a ticket on the last boat back to the US; or the governments who constantly bombard the infected zone with air-strikes then wonder why the creatures try to push outwards past the walls hemming them in.
Monsters is Gareth Edwards’ feature debut as writer/director. He has managed to achieve an astonishing level of realism in this film, and he did it in a rather unique yet obvious-in-hindsight way: it’s all real, with the exception of the creatures (duh). The whole movie was shot by a location crew of seven people including the two lead actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able. Everyone else that appears in the film were locals from wherever the crew happened to be that day. All of this, combined with the entirely improvised dialogue, results in a palpable sense of vérité that permeates the film.
A film of this scale, without any of the flash of its higher-budgeted brethren, lives or dies on its characters. This one lives. Working with their director, McNairy and Able (who were cast, incidentally, because they were already a couple) have crafted a pair of fully realised, believable people. McNairy’s Andrew Kaulder is the more complex of the two, but only slightly. At the beginning he’s practically a mercenary. Armed with a camera instead of a gun, he is on the lookout for the $50,000 shot of a child killed by a creature.
When Able – as Sam Wynden, the rich girl hiding from her engagement by heading south of the border – calls him out on what he does, he hides behind the excuse that he has to earn a living and decries the system that will only pay him to capture the worst of things. His transformation to a man who stands rapturously as two of the giant octopussy-looking things communicate right in front of him occurs gradually and, there’s that word again, believably.
Sam is seemingly more straightforward at first; daddy’s little girl stranded in Mexico. She doesn’t develop as much as Kaulder. For her it’s more a matter of pulling away the preconceptions to find an intelligent, compassionate woman who is reluctant to go ahead with the wedding that is waiting for her back home, and who finds herself drawn to her travelling companion against her better judgement.
No review of Monsters is complete without mentioning the music. The sparse, haunting, strings-based electronic score by composer, DJ and producer Jon Hopkins is a perfect match to this rather contemplative and languid science fiction/romance/road movie.
As well as writing and directing, Edwards also did all the visual effects shots by himself, designing the creatures and compositing them into the finished film. The result is not only a credit to the man himself, but also a challenge to the less diligent film companies knocking out their monthly dreck. If this guy can create such believable (sorry), textured and clearly intelligent creatures in his bedroom, then what excuse does SyFy have? A more subtle use of CGI in the movie is with the production design. All the signs in the film – maps of the infected zone, the gas mask warnings, and so on – were created in Edwards’ bedroom as well, by simply laying what he wanted over existing standard road signs that appeared in the shots. The things you learn from DVD extras…
Since the release of Monsters, Gareth Edwards has been tapped to direct Warner Brothers’ latest attempt to recreate the Toho magic with a Godzilla remake. It’s quite a step up from this, but I for one am definitely looking forward to it.