Directed and Written by Gareth Edwards; Starring Whitey Able and Scoot McNairy
Release Date: October 29, 2010 (US)
Official Website: www.monstersthemovie.com
Available for Rental on iTunes USA
Alien life forms have spread throughout Central America leading to the quarantine of half of Mexico. The U.S. and Mexican militaries are battling to contain the creatures, with a wall stretching along the American border. The story follows Andrew an American photojournalist who is tracking down the rich-kid daughter of his boss and their journey back to America through the ‘infected zone.
So, based on the trailer (see below) and the general synopsis and buzz about Monsters, I was pretty much expecting District 9 meets Cloverfield meets War of the Worlds. In Mexico. When I saw that the movie was available for early rental on iTunes, I was ecstatic (because 1. I have no time to go to the theater these days, and 2. early movie rentals in the comfort of your own home = WIN). I got my halloween candy and soda in hand, and settled in for a good ol’ fashioned scifi/action/horror romp.
What I got was ever so slightly different. Ok, significantly different. Monsters isn’t really about monsters or invading alien life forms at all; it’s actually a human love story, shot against a jungle backdrop in a crumbling world. It’s a character driven-movie, and save for a few monster-sightings, it’s also a very slow movie. Slow isn’t bad, but when a movie is billed and marketed as an alien monster mash romp in the jungle, there are bound to be some upset customers (just do a brief scan of reviews on the iTunes store to see what I mean). The story is simple: a NASA probe carrying samples of alien life crashed somewhere in the wild jungles of Mexico, and six years later, half of the country has been quarantined as an “Infected Zone.” The US government and Mexican government have desperately been trying to combat the alien threat as these monstrous life forms have adapted to our ecosystem, building a wall between the US-Mexico border, but to little success; the alien threat continues to mount each day. Enter Andrew, an American photojournalist hungry for an up-close shot of the creatures. Andrew is sent to pick up his rich employer’s daughter, Samantha, beyond the infected zone and get her safely back to the United States. After an unfortunate robbery (thanks to, of course, tequila shots), Samantha is unable to get on her safe ferry to the US, and without money or passports both Sam and Andrew must find another way home – through the infected zone. (Click to enlarge all images)
So, let’s talk about what worked. By far, the best thing Monsters has going for it is its absolutely stunning composition in terms of sound, visuals and cinematography – shot on location in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Texas over the course of three weeks on a relatively small budget (about $500,000), Monsters is atmospherically superb and looks and feels like an expensive movie. Edwards manages to capture the wild beauty of the jungle, the crumbling relics overrun by wilderness (and monsters), creating a vibe that is both desolate and untamed. Even the titled “Monsters” (the few times you see them) are well animated – this isn’t some cheap effect SyFy Friday Night special. The amount of time and love Edwards put into each frame is abundantly clear. Words cannot express how thankful I am that Monsters was not shot in the Cloverfield, mockumentary style (which would have been unbearable).
Unfortunately, visuals can only carry Monsters so far, and while I loved the premise and the idea of the film, the execution (i.e. the script) was sadly lacking. Monsters, rather than relying on huge action sequences or terrifying squid alien attacks is a more subdued film about two wayward humans, trying to find their way home and falling in love in the process. The chemistry between the two characters is there – McNairy and Able are a real life couple and were cast precisely because they are a couple – and both do a decent acting job.
Where the execution stumbles, however, is with the actual scripting and narrative of the film. McNairy and Able were given to ad-lib the scenes and dialogue in the film, which, unfortunately, leads to stagnancy and repetition. This isn’t Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 with its sharp political allegory and tightly woven plot. Andrew and Samantha’s dilemma lacks urgency, and while their love story is nicely evolved over their journey, on their own merit, these characters aren’t particularly interesting or deep. And, even more importantly, the majority of scenes in the film are “empty” vignettes; that is, nothing happens. As visually appealing as Monsters is, it is the equivalent of style over substance. There are so many untapped reservoirs of potential with this movie, and it’s a shame that for all of Edwards’ skill behind the camera, ultimately Monsters fails because of its lack of narrative ambition and direction. Like its sleepy characters, Monsters gradually meanders and stumbles its way to a denouement, without ever really trying to get there.
I recommend watching the film if only to enjoy Mr. Edwards’ formidable skill with cinematography – but I’d recommend waiting for a cheaper rental. One can’t help but think – what if some non-gratuitous Hollywood type picked up the movie, assigned it a real script and had Edwards at the helm for visuals? Now that is a movie I want to see.
Rating: 6 – Good