Tuesday, December 14, 2010

New Release Review: Monsters (Gareth Edwards, 2010)

Made with a shoestring budget of only $500,000, Monsters writer/director/cinematographer Gareth Edwards should be commended on his excellent work here in constructing a genuinely intriguing and visually impressive sci-fi adventure drama. When a NASA probe sent to investigate the possibility of extraterrestrial life in our Solar System crashes on re-entry in Central America, alien lifeforms in the form of giant octopi begin to spread throughout the United States/Mexico border region leading to a complete quarantine of the upper half of Mexico. Military convoys have been ordered in an attempt to contain and control the creatures, with the Governments also resorting to air strikes and defoliation. An enormous wall stretching along the border crossing keeps the United States protected from infiltration.

The film opens with a sequence shot with night vision, as a U.S patrol vehicle drives through a town and approaches one of the giant tentacled creatures that has ambushed another unit. One of the vehicles in the convoy is flipped over and the soldiers fire upon the creature, as a civilian man screams for help and tries to drag an injured woman away from danger. An air strike is called on the area, and the screen fades to black as an air-to-ground missile hones in their position. The main plot is centered on Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a young photojournalist who is stationed in Mexico documenting the horrific aftermath. Andrew is hired to escort his wealthy boss' daughter, Sam (Whitney Able) back across the border into the United States as the creatures begin to spread further South.

This is not your typical alien invasion film, and it is a much more thoughtful approach than most of the end-of-the-world blockbusters that hit the screen these days. It can be marketed as a science-fiction adventure film, but it shares elements of other genres. As a result of this approach, it is a difficult film to market and it unfortunately suffered from a small release. I think that most genre fans will be disappointed with the premise, and the lack of 'action' present. Monsters ultimately becomes a romance, set in a war-torn dystopia, which also addresses themes of biology and immigration. At one point, the pair are at the Mexican coast seeking a ferry around the infected zone into America. Despite Sam's passport and evidence of American citizenship, the ferry official charges $5000 dollars (a small fortune) for a ticket. The only other option is to travel through the infected zone, which also requires fees to cover the series of escorts. What was ridiculously convenient was the robbery of Andrew's bag the morning Sam is due to leave on the ferry. Andrew had slept with a local girl, who had consequently robbed him of his valuable few possessions, and forced the pair to seek an alternative arrangement.

The plot is simple and straightforward but there are some unfortunate moments of convenience. The true marvelous feature is just how visually surreal the world feels; and the way it is captured. Shot on location with hand-held cinematography, there are some incredible images of destruction and ruin, and some pretty impressive special effects considering the budget. It successfully documents the siege by an extraterrestrial force that has immediately shuffled humans down the food chain. Even outside the 'infected zone' the countryside is littered with the remains of crashed fighter jets and helicopters, while squashed cars are frequently found nestled in the upper branches of trees. The pace seems languid at times, but i found it calculated and mesmerizing. It often seems so tranquil and quiet, like the calm following the storm, but with this threatening presence lurking beneath the surface. This is none more evident than in the sequence on the water at night. Having stalled because of motor trouble, they spot something moving on the water. As it nears the boat it is discovered to be a fighter jet half submerged. There is movement beneath the surface and tentacles wrap around the jet and pull it beneath the water. Despite seeing little to none of the creature it remains effective and creepy because you think that this easily could have happened to their boat, stranded only metres away.

Some of the sequences on the river remind me of Apocalypse Now (1979) as they are seemingly removed from the war front, but are journeying through the aftermath witnessing the devastation and death that now plagues this part of the world. The premise also reminded me of District 9 (2009), with the Government funded quarantine of the creatures in an attempt to control them. Later in the film it is revealed that the Government had dropped chemical weapons on the inhabited areas and had provoked and angered the creatures. While they live predominantly in the rivers, they lay their eggs on the land (in the trees) and then return to the rivers. In just six years they have adapted to the land and have found a way to survive and reproduce, which certainly looks grim for the future of humanity. There is a wall defending the creatures from America, with the Government spending a lot of money to protect the border. Andrew claims that "you can't fight nature", while Sam recognizes that many have been imprisoned in Mexico. With such an active defense around the infected zone, movement into the United States or from the United States into Mexico is extremely dangerous and near impossible.

With the exception of the two leads, Edwards called on non-actors from the villages to play many of the roles. Both lead characters feel real and grounded, and each deliver quality performances and share a great chemistry. Scoot McNairy is charming and likable, but obnoxious while Whitney Able is shy and sweet but strong and determined. They bond almost immediately and their conversations throughout the film are revelatory and really enlightening of their personalities. My advice is to forget all you think you know about alien invasion films, Monsters is not at all like you imagine. It is well paced, engaging and has a heart and sense of humanity so often absent in the genre.

My Rating: 4 Stars

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