Thursday, December 2, 2010

Review: Monsters (Part 2)

Dir. Gareth Edwards
Year: 2010
Aus Rating: M
Running Time: 94mins

It is sometimes easy for a person who sees a lot of films to, from time to time, have a dispirited feeling about the whole thing. It was just earlier this year when I had a horrendous run of movies that seemed to have no end in sight. Each subsequent movie was getting worse and worse and each screening I would attend would involve me clutching on to the arm rest for dear life, hoping that something – anything - would come along and brighten up the cinema screen and send jolts of life through the nerves and cells of my, admittedly quite unevolved, brain. True to form, plenty of fine films came along and 2010 is looking robust and has blossomed with some truly beautiful works of film.

Furthermore, it’s rare that someone such as myself comes across a film that they know truly nothing about. It should come as no surprise to anybody reading this that I spent quite a bit of time on the internet writing about, reading about, discussing and fretting about movies of all various shapes and sizes. The element of surprise is one that is hard to manufacture these days with so many ways of not only knowing something exists, but knowing everything about it, too. We always know who it stars and who directed it, while countless trailers recite audiences the entire plot including the end and tell us, in glaringly obvious ways might I add, what we’re meant to feel about and for the movie before we’ve even seen it.

Sometimes I’m stunned that one of the ever-growing number of blogs, news feeds and websites that feeds the world on the ever-changing day-to-stay status of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (or Part 2, or 4, 6 or 12) hasn’t told the world just who exactly is eating which variety of sandwich from the catering truck on the set in a never-ending cries of “EXCLUSIVE!” in the desperate grab for unique hits and Digg links

So, needless to say, when I say I knew next to nothing about Gareth Edwards’ sci-fi blend Monsters, I was as surprised as anybody. I’ve been in this situation once or twice since I started writing about films and sometimes it can be beneficial and other times it can be a curse (when the film turns out to be nothing close to something I would normally watch – hello Paper Heart), but in this case it was a rousing success. The film’s almost boutique nature works in its favour as it has the ability to act as a sneak attack on a viewer. I implore you to not read the rest of this review if you have not yet seen Monsters since, as I feel I am making abundantly clear, it helps to know as little as possible. Not in a The Sixth Sense or The Others twist sort of way, but in the way that its scenes, its images and its language will have more power when you don’t know what you’re expecting. I sat in the cinema not knowing what spectacle Edwards was going to put on screen next and that’s a feeling to savour.

If you continue to read on without having seen the film then I guess you want to know what it’s all about, don’t you? Well, Monsters is a British independent science-fiction drama that was made on a budget of $500,000, filmed illegally in countries like Mexico, Brazil, Guatemala, Belize and America and stars a real life married couple whose previous work involves TV guest roles and similarly low budget, independent work that many audiences have probably never heard of. Writer/Director Gareth Edwards didn’t stop at just that, he is also the cinematography, production designer and visual effects programmer. He has made a miraculous filmmaking achievement that ranks as the finest film I have seen in half a decade. A modern sci-fi classic in the making and packs a powerful punch to unsuspecting viewers.

Hyperbole? Feel free to think so, but as I emerged out of the darkened cinema I knew I’d seen something truly special to me. A wondrous work of inspired filmmaking on a pure and searing scale. While a large chunk of the film’s strength – and a platform for near condescending chirps of “how did he do it?!” – relies on knowing that it was made for such a pittance in movie-making circles, yet it’s so much more. I admit to seeing Monsters and wishing I could become a filmmaker. I don’t believe I have the inherent talent to do so, but the reaction of being truly inspired is one I rarely experience. Is this what people felt like after seeing Star Wars for the first time in 1979? Maybe. I don’t mean to claim that Monsters will have the same sort of effect that that blockbuster did once upon a time, but it’s that internal feeling that a film can stir inside you that makes you want to do something that could maybe, just maybe, have a similar effect on someone else. A chain letter of sorts.

Monsters could be labelled a lot of things. Taking an amusing parlour game from Robert Altman’s The Player, it could be classified as all sorts of wacky scenarios. A road movie version of District 9, Before Sunrise in the Mexican jungle, Cloverfield without the awful characters (not so much “wacky”, I guess, as tolerable)… and while I am sure many are creating parallels between, at least, District 9 and Cloverfield, they are really nothing alike. Set the superficial similarities aside and they have no connection whatsoever. And, hey, at least Monsters doesn’t decide to ditch its narrative conceits halfway through and turn into Iron Man in South Africa.

(See what I did there? I played that The Player game again!)

Opening with murky, shaky-cam footage of an alien attack on an unnamed Mexican city, Monsters could very easily have gone down the fake documentary path that has made the aforementioned movies so successful, but it quickly transitions into a traditional two-hander filled more with tender moments, focusing on our own fragility, than moments of excessive CGI alien-blasting action. Following photojournalist Andrew Kaulder, a wonderfully ordinary Scoot McNairy, as he attempts to get his boss’ daughter, the seemingly opaque and yet kind-hearted Samantha Wynden, Whitney Able, injured in an alien attack, out of a Mexican quarantined infection zone and home to safety in America.

As I’ve just noted, there are indeed “monsters” in the film. A British arthouse film may not be the first place you would expect to find them, but they are there so, no, the title isn’t some ironic gag, but, then again, this ain’t no ordinary British arthouse film. There’s nary a gray council estate in sight, hell there isn’t even any Britain in sight! That we don’t get to see much of the monsters, however, harkens back to the days when films of this sort were working with B-grade budgets and not only kept their respective monsters hidden for storytelling purposes, but hid their monsters because they simply didn’t have the money to actually have a monster in every scene. A traditional Hollywood alien invasion film of the ‘00s Monsters most assuredly is not.

Aliens have indeed populated the Earth – or, more specifically, the northern half of Mexico – after an accident involving a satellite returned to Earth carrying stowaway alien lifeforms that inhabited the Mexican jungle upon re-entry. The “zona infectada” is bordered by a giant American-made wall to the north and an obviously threadbare wire fence to the south. In one scene it even appears that some of these fences are only maintained by a guard in a dilapidated tollbooth shack reminiscent of the one in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles, so easy would it be to simply walk around rather than wait for the gate to open.

These monsters, amphibious giant squid creatures, appear to be violent, destructive creatures. The more we learn about them the more that proves to be far from the truth, a lie perpetuated by justifiably apprehensive governments and trigger-happy armed forces. These aliens are far from the point of Monsters, however, as Edwards has chosen to focus on the two humans, their dissatisfied and troubles lives back home in America spread about with piecemeal nuggets and the analogous interpretations that audiences can read into the story.

Obvious parallels with the Iraq war and the Mexican immigration epidemic are there for everyone to see, but done with refreshing genre technique that reminds of 1970s horror films reflected on the Vietnam War. If it feels like, perhaps, Edwards is smacking us over the head with his themes – a scene atop of an ancient Mexican temple comes awfully close to doing so – it’s easily forgiven because of how he’s handled everything surrounding them. The story he is telling is such a refreshingly different one that I felt they were messages in service of a film, not the other way around.

Elsewhere there are more issues on the filmmaker’s mind. Global warming, class issues and imperialism are there to be read. And yet throughout all of this Edwards never loses the sight of his film, never letting the issues and the grandstanding get in the way of telling his story.

Beyond the traditional title cards at the film’s beginning explaining the back-story, Edwards uses inventive ways of getting this situation into his viewers’ minds. Notice how McNairy’s Andrew plays soccer with local kids in front of a mural featuring army tanks and the squid monsters battling in the desert, its paint beginning to fade due to inattention and little care. Notice how a character looks at a board showing the spread of the Mexican infected zone with such ambivalence, as if the idea of aliens is so old hat. I personally loved the scene in the house of the Mexican family where the children watch an animated TV show, it’s bright and colourful images like Dora the Explorer, except this show features a young cartoon child placing a gasmask on in a comical fashion upon the arrival of a monster at his home.

And therein lies a great big part of why Monsters is successful at what it's aiming to do. Instead of taking the usual placement of an alien invasion film, putting its characters right in the midst of the initial incursion where gun fire, explosions and frantic running and screaming are the norm (recently released Skyline falls into this same trap that we’ve seen countless times before), it takes place long after when humans have grown to accept them. When asked "why do you stay here?" a taxi driver replies "we have learnt to live with it", while a news report informs how the monsters mate and another mentions how the "annual migration" of the monsters has altered this year. These people have lived with this for so long now that it adds such a fascinating dimension to the events and the characters; obviously strong and resourceful people in spite of some of their actions saying otherwise. This world is no longer “ours” vs “theirs”; it’s simply a co-inhabited way of life. These people seem more put out by a train stopping in the middle of the night than the idea of giant aliens from another world inhabiting Earth. It’s adds a new texture to the tale, one that I can’t recall having seen before.

The pleasures of Monsters is not confined purely with the intellectual. Despite the film’s modest – the say the least – budget (all products used for filming cost a measly $15,000!), Edwards has somehow crafted a film that looks like 100 times its budget. There are images in here that have been all but surgically branded upon my retinas. The first time I saw that boat on the elevated riverbank, as if moved by Fitzcarraldo himself, or the passenger jet brought down by the tentacles of one of the little-seen monsters I actually had a bit of a “moment”. I had to take in the beauty on display and yet right following each of them is another worthy of praise and adoration.

Edwards’ production design is a stunning achievement. A seamless merging of real locations and CGI work, the art direction is faultless. Particular acknowledgement must go to the Mexican festival sequence that becomes a mournful moment with thousands of flames dedicated to the dead, a sobering moment indeed. The closing scenes set in the Texas desert are also fruitful displays of wonderful sets, whether it be the deserted bordertown or the isolated petrol station that acts as the climactic scene’s private stage.

That climax, a beguiling lightshow worthy of Aurora Borealis is a magic feat of visual effects, wonder and beauty. The CGI is used sparingly throughout the film, and usually always done so well that you could have fooled me it was all done inside a computer, but the film’s climax is one of the most poetic and awe-inspiring moments of technical wizardry of the past decade. My mouth dropped agog and as the credits rolled I was speechless. It’s a transcendent moment that raises everything that came before it to an even higher level. Even if the characters of Andrew and Samantha seem suddenly less like they have been, it’s understandable considering what they’ve witnessed. Making the very final seconds even more moving since there is perhaps an even greater movie in what happens next!

Even if I didn’t like everything else about Monsters it would have been entirely worth it for that moment, the scope of which belies the film’s unassuming origins. Don’t expect guns and ammunition clips during this science fiction climax, that’s for sure.

Sure, there are several implausabilities, but I failed to be nudged by them. I am fairly certain there are no ancient pyramids within a few miles of the Mexico/US border, just as I am quite certain that the geography of northern Mexico is not lush rainforests and winding rivers. So too do I question why America spent all this money on a giant concrete reinforced wall – basically their own Great Wall of America – and yet left a giant gaping entry point for the monsters to just waltz on in. But, hey, people forgive bigger in lesser movies with far bigger budgets and more people to comb over every last detail and yet who still get far more wrong than right.

What I appreciated was how Gareth Edwards created such a rich and vivid world, one that has been lived, and with characters that – despite whether you like them or not – feel like they have a past, a present and maybe a future. No, it’s not all that impressive that he made it for half a million dollars (well, it is, but it’s not the reason for such plaudits in my mind), because no matter how many money he had, it still emanates from the mind that has ideas. On the budgetary side of things, however, it is so nice to see a low budget arthouse film that works with images just as much as ideas. They may not be the most radical or complex of issues, but this is a man who knows how to make movies work in all dimensions and with Monsters he has crafted a brilliant one, a sensory overload. I can’t imagine he will make a film better than his debut, but gosh I can’t wait to see him try. A


Tom Clift said...

I went in to this film feeling fairly unenthusiastic (dragged by friends who had no interest in seeing Enter the Void or Fair Game), and I expected it to be a cheap District 9 rip-off.

Ironically, I ended up really loving it (although not on the same level as you did), while most of the people I went with thought it was boring ("not enough action" I remember one of them complaining).

I have to imagine that a lot of viewers like my friends are going to come out of this movie disappointed - the poster and the title both seem to promise something this film is not. Even so, it's a great flick.

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