Tick Reviews: Monsters (2010)
The last few years have been an absolute boon for science fiction fans. Big budget spectacles like Avatar, Inception and Star Trek have proved the genre to be profitable with the average movie goer, which will at least give film makers with smaller, more challenging films a chance to get picked up. That’s a good environment right now, because the last few years have been an absolute renaissance for indie sci fi. Films like Duncan Jones’ Moon, Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, Nacho Vigalondo’s Timecrimes and Neill Blomkamp’s Distric 9, to name a few, have led a movement a smart, thoughtful sci fi with original content that doesn’t rely on big budgets and flashy effects to tell a story. You can add Monsters to that ever-growing list that will hopefully keep expanding.
Monsters opens in Mexico six years after a NASA space probe sent to find new life in our solar system, has crash landed in Mexico after making contact. Gigantic new life forms and rapidly spreading spores have turned half of the country into a quarantined infected zone. The US and Mexican military conduct and ongoing war with the alien life forms to contain them within the borders of the infected zone, while the rest of Mexico simply learns to go along with their new way of life.
The story focuses on two Americans living among Mexico’s “safe” area. One is jaded photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) who wanders the country trying to capture images of the aftermath of Alien attacks. As Kaulder puts it,”Know how much I get paid for a photograph of a dead child? Fifty-thousand dollars. Know how much I get paid for a picture of a smiling child? Nothing.” To say that Kaulder is a little dead inside would be putting it mildly.
He’s awakened by the appearance of Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) when she is thrust upon him by his rich employer. Samantha is his bosses daughter and though it’s never explained why his privileged little girl is in Mexico, it is now Kaulder’s task to get her back home to the U.S. in the next few days. Not an easy task when there are only a couple of ways out before the migratory pattern of the aliens shuts down the border for six months.
That, of course, become the driving plot of the film and while the aliens and the journey to escape them serve as the backdrop, they are not the focus here. Monsters is about two damaged people taking a journey both geographically and internally. They aren’t just trying to escape Mexico, they’re trying to escape their own empty lives and make a connection that might actually mean something. Where Samantha is desperately looking for a reason to stay in Mexico, Kaulder is searching for a reason to leave.
This isn’t a film with lots of action or is it a film peppered with great chunks of dialogue. There are long moments of silence. These are two people who don’t really know what to say to each other and even as they grow closer and experience frightening moments where their lives are endangered, their relationship remains awkward. They want to reach out to one another, but even they are confused by what this journey is making them feel. It’s one of the better metaphors in the film that these two are trying to sneak across the border to the US, but it really isn’t their home. Home is something these two people are really still trying to find.
The loneliness of the two leads is mirrored in much of the cinematography. There are very beautiful moments in this film, visually. Shattered building standing like gravestones along the river as birds circle overhead. Sitting atop an ancient pyramid at daybreak, looking out over the jungle towards a border fence that puts the Great Wall to shame. The lasting impression as we finally get the money shot of the towering aliens in motion. There’s many moments like this that will stay with you. It’s a wonderfully shot film.
Although budgetary constraints keep the monster mayhem to a minimum, it is a fully realized world that feels very real. Evidence of the Lovecraftian aliens are omnipresent. Television sets show constant news footage of military strikes against the gargantuan beings. Walls are adorned with murals depicting the aliens, warnings signs are on every corner and the occasional scene of destruction reminds you what is going on. Everyone our characters meet have some sort of tale to tell about how the accidental invasion has affected their lives, be it morning their dead or just trying to ignore the monsters as they go about their daily routine. The film makers have gone to great length to fully flesh out this world and make it lived in.
Unfortunately, while I do greatly admire this film and feel it’s almost perfect on a lot of levels, it just didn’t connect with me the way it should have. It’s maybe a bit too detached and ethereal in sections. In scenes where the titular monsters make their presence felt, there is almost zero tension. The film can be almost paradoxical in how beautiful and warm it is, yet still a bit cold at the same time. While I understand the characters’ need to play things close to the vest, it feels like writer/director Gareth Edwards is often doing the same.
I also was hoping for a little more subtext than what was presented. I know that’s a personal grumble and a film isn’t obligated to provide me with sociopolitical view points. I’ve just been spoiled by recent indie Sci Fi and Monsters was ripe for such issues to be woven into its fabric. While I’m happy the subtext that’s included isn’t heavy-handed, it also never gets deeper or less obvious than ideas like the US building a giant wall to keep the “aliens” out.
Overall, Monsters is definitely worth your time if you go into it knowing what to expect. This is very indie and moves at a slow pace for most of its run time. It’s more romance and striking cinematography than Kaiju mayhem. There’s also that final act that’s going to irritate and confound a lot of people. Still, even with its flaws, it’s worth seeing. I wanted to love it and only liked it, but it’s still just short of being a masterpiece.
It’s always awesome to watch a new film maker with their own vision debut upon the scene and Gareth Edwards has shown that he has the goods to keep this new Sci Fi revival moving forward to exciting places.
7.5 out of 10