Saturday, March 5, 2011
TEFB REVIEW: MONSTERS
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring Whitney Able, Scoot McNairy
I don't know how many people realize it, but right now is a great time to be a fan of science-fiction films. Director Neill Blomkamp made hardcore sci-fi geeks, the casual movie goer, critics, AND Academy Award members sit-up straight and take notice with his 2009 film District 9. Likewise, filmmaker Duncan Jones had a lot of success (although on a much smaller scale) with the film Moon, one of the best genre films of the last decade. Now, the creator, writer, director, and visual effects artist Gareth Edwards joins the ranks of these two virtuosos, and positions himself as one of the most exciting new filmmakers to come along in quite sometime, as his film Monsters demonstrates him to be quite a talent.
Despite the film's marketing as a full-scale alien invasion film, Monsters is actually quite small and, dare I say it, more of a drama. That's not to say that Godzilla fans won't get their gigantic beast fix, but, on a budget of less than one million dollars (and without the clout of Oscar winning director Peter Jackson behind it, like District 9 had), Monsters is forced to focus more on its characters than on the creatures promised by its title. Although its marketing positions it as an epic creature film, it's actually quite small, and, I believe, all the better for it.
Monsters begins six years after an alien invasion, when the alien creatures are part of every day life for the people who live on the Mexican-American border. While the area (known as the "Infected Zone") has been destroyed by battles with the gigantic, HP Lovecraft inspired beings, it's still sparsely populated, and run by outlaws and gangs who make their money by transporting people across the border, from Mexico into America.
Two of these people being transported are Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photographer for an unnamed American magazine, and Samantha (Whitney Able). Andrew has been sent to Mexico on an assignment to get footage for said magazine, only to end up playing babysitter when Sam's father (also Andrew's boss) asks him to accompany his daughter (who was injured in Mexico) back to America. Soon, Andrew and Sam are trying to barter with corrupt Mexican officials who won't allow them to travel without dispensing major cash, getting drunk on tequila together right outside the Infected Zone, and falling in love with each other while trying not to get eaten by invaders from another world.
Despite a terrifically shot and heart-pounding opening scene, Monsters spends a lot of time observing Andrew and Sam slowly becoming enamored with each other. Andrew initially turns down his boss's instructions to get Sam back to the border safely and then, for reasons unexplained by the movie (I can only guess it's because, well, Sam's smokin' hot), changes his mind. He's hostile towards her at first (she is, after all, getting in his way of taking a photo of either a live creature or a dead child), and she towards him (he is, pretty much, a prick). But, as they say, danger has a way of tightening the strings of attraction, and danger permeates the world in which these two characters exist.
It's a world that, in spite of it's low budget, director Gareth Edwards builds with care and attention to detail. From news reports of creature sightings on a television in the background of a scene, to kids playing with gas masks, to signs and graffiti marking danger zones, Monsters takes atmosphere and setting very seriously, and not once will you not believe that this story is taking place in a world changed by disastrous events in much the same way it was by 9/11. Filmed documentary style, Edwards knows how to fill a frame with interesting compositions, and much of the film is very beautifully shot, even when taking in disturbing subject matter. The look of the film is comparable to an indie art-house film, and while it may seem strange to mix "art-house" with "science-fiction", Edwards makes it work for pretty much the entire film.
What doesn't work for the entire film, unfortunately (unfortunately, but not so much so that it damns the film completely), is the screenplay. Characters make odd decisions that don't quite make sense, even in context, and it appears whole scenes that may explain character motivation are missing. For instance - at one point Andrew is on the phone speaking with his son, which he hides from Sam (who, at this point in the movie, he just wants to have a hot night in the sack with). A few scenes later, however, they're having a conversation about his son as if Andrew's been candid about the situation for the whole film. I'm not sure if this was an oversight during the writing of the script or if, during the editing process, a scene was excised that would explain that jump in the narrative, but either way it makes for a disjointed and perplexing experience.
Also disjointed are the performances by Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able. She fares much better than he does throughout the entire film, but her job as Sam is still uneven and, at times, just plain terrible. Scoot, while able to perpetrate a douchebag with a camera, struggles to keep his performance from seeming like anything other than an audition. The chemistry between the two leads is actually quite good, and there are times where they both nail emotional beats, however there are certainly much stronger actors out there who could have improved this aspect of the film immensely.
The CG effects in Monsters, for the most part, are wonderful. They are, of course, aided by the fact that the creatures only expose themselves at night, and therefore any flaws in the F/X can be covered up by shading easily. That is in no way a knock to the visual effects work done by Mr. Edwards, however. Apparently created with his home computer using consumer-grade Adobe software, the shots involving the aliens look mostly stunning, and the creature design is visually intriguing. The only shaky effects work comes towards the very end, when it's obvious that a large-scare effects house (such as WETA) wasn't involved in the making of the film. That's a nit-picky complaint, though, for a film so ambitiously created and executed on such a small scale.
Speaking of the ending - I'll avoid spoilers, but I was mighty impressed with how Monsters handles it's climax and resolution. It sets up a battle between monsters and military - and then takes a completely different turn into territory I don't think any alien film has ever gone to. I was surprised at the direction the film goes in, and pleasantly at that.
Monsters may disappoint those hardcore sci-fi fans looking for wall to wall battles and creature action. However, those looking for an ambitious, interesting, well paced, and superbly shot art-film that takes place inside the plot of a B-movie, look no further.