Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Monsters (2010)

Or, Richard Attenborough’s Independence Day

Image: Vertigo Films

The trailers for Gareth Edwards’ debut feature have been selling Monsters as an action sci-fi horror in the vein of Cloverfield or the more recent, more loathed Skyline. The posters, with their bio-hazard warning signs, were reminiscent of the excellent District 9. So what is it?

A NASA space probe has crashed in Mexico, bringing extraterrestrial life back with it. The squid-like beasts grow to enormous proportions, capable of destroying whole buildings. The US has declared much of Mexico an “Infected Zone”, and has constructed a huge wall to keep the monsters out. Photographer Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is instructed by the owner of the newspaper he works for to escort the tycoon’s daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) home. When events conspire against them they are forced to go through the zone.

With an estimated budget of $200,000, Edwards has made a film that looks like it could have had studio financing. He’s also subverted the expectations of audiences waiting for a big monster action movie. Instead, he’s made something that looks like what a National Geographic alien invasion film might look like. There are no big battle sequences, no mind-melds, and no one-liners. All the action sequences in the film have already been seen in the trailer.

Rather than focusing on the creatures themselves, Edwards prioritises his characters and the ruined yet beautiful landscape they walk through. Kaulder and Samantha aren’t the stereotypes they appear to be at first glance. Kaulder might seem like a jaded asshole, but well-paced character development puts us on his side. In another film, Samantha would be a spoiled brat or an irritatingly idealistic hippie who puts them at risk. Here, she’s melancholy and more aware of what’s going on than Kaulder. The growing relationship between the two characters unfolds slowly but surely and, more importantly, plausibly.

Visually, the film is very striking indeed. The warning signs and public service announcements are full of lovely little details. As Kaulder and Samantha make their way through the infected zone, we see ruined hotels, burnt-out helicopters, and a jet fighter floating down the river. The uselessness of US intervention in the jungle recalls films like Platoon, and even the work of Werner Herzog, as opposed to the back catalogue of Roland Emmerich. We also see what effect the invasion and the US attacks have on the locals. Children wear gas-masks and no one travels at night. They stay there because they have nowhere else to go.

That being said, the film does suffer a bit once you realise what Edwards’ agenda is. When you’re aware of the fact that there probably aren’t going to be that many big shocks, you relax. This works for admiring the visuals and the love story between Samantha and Kaulder, but the lack of action in the plot will be too much for some audiences who showed up expecting a blockbuster.

It may not the masterpiece that the hype would have you believe, but this is a very interesting and overall successful take on the alien invasion film. If you found the gory action sequences in District 9 too much to stomach, check out Monsters. It’s like District 9 meets Salvador. In a good way.

Visually stunning and surprisingly different, Monsters succeeds, but maybe not in the way you’d expect.



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