Phil on Film Index

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review - Monsters

You might expect alien creatures to be the focal point of a film entitled Monsters, but one of the surprises offered by Gareth Edwards in his debut feature is that the monsters themselves are kept out of sight for much of the movie. However, their presence can be felt at every step of this inventive drama. As the film's two lead characters wander through Mexico, we see evidence of alien infestation that has lasted six years. Signs warning the public of quarantine zones, the debris of damaged tanks and fighter planes, even a kids' cartoon on a local television network that has incorporated the monsters into its story. Everything is depicted in a naturalistic and matter-of-fact manner and it is instantly convincing as a portrait of a world that has learned to adapt and accommodate this new element in their lives.

Monsters will inevitably draw comparisons with last year's District 9; both films are directorial debuts, both offer allegorical tales of mankind learning to live alongside alien creatures, and both successfully incorporate slick visual effects that belie their relatively small budgets. This is particularly true in Monsters' case, which was made (for a total that has been reported as anywhere between $15,000 and $500,000) with little more than a camera, a couple of actors and plenty of ideas, with director Edwards filling in the background details on his computer later. Whether it's just a result of his financial limitations or more indicative of his filmmaking personality, Edward's minimalist approach works wonders for Monsters, and makes it feel like a fresh discovery. In many ways it reminded me of early Spielberg and specifically Jaws and Close Encounters, which held back on the revelation of their creatures and instead focused on atmosphere and characters. If Steven Spielberg had made War of the Worlds in 1975 rather than 2005, it might have looked something like this.

Edwards relies heavily on his two actors to carry the film and Monsters often feels more like a road movie with romantic comedy undertones than a sci-fi picture. Cynical photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and rich tourist Samantha (Whitney Able) are thrown together when Sam's father – the publisher of the magazine Andrew works for – instructs the photographer to ensure his daughter gets across the border to the US safely. A series of unfortunate events leave them with no other route north than through 'The Zone,' the quarantined area inhabited by the most active creatures, and so they venture into danger, occasionally hearing ominous sounds in the dark forest around them, or catching a glimpse of an alien tentacle in the river that they are nervously sailing down.

The improvised dialogue between McNairy and Able doesn't provide the characters with much depth, but they are a likable pair whose growing attraction and emotional attachment feels real as it develops throughout the movie. They do enough to hold our attention as Edwards' films proceeds at a surprisingly measured pace. He allows his characters to stop occasionally and take in their surroundings, from interacting with a family who offer them food and shelter to gazing in awe and fear at the ghost towns they pass through, or the enormous wall built across the US/Mexico border. The director is good at generating tension too, staging a nighttime attack on the guerrillas escorting Andrew and Sam and a later sequence in which an alien's exploratory tentacle lurks in uncomfortable proximity to the cowering pair.

These are the moments in which Monsters is at its most effective, when Edwards is displaying his firm grasp of filmmaking technique and utilising his visual effects sparingly but brilliantly. He is less surefooted when he tries to graft a clunky immigration moral onto this simple narrative, or too clumsily rams home his "who are the real monsters?" tone. He also struggles to bring his film to a truly satisfying climax, delivering an ending that feels weirdly abrupt, but it's easy to forgive a multitude of sins when faced with the kind of beauty Edwards unexpectedly throws up when he finally gives us our first unobstructed view of the creatures interacting with one another. It's the kind of moment that would be gorgeous and memorable on any budget, and it's the point that confirmed for me the fact that this guy is a real filmmaker, with an eye for lyrical, striking images and the skill to pull them off. Monsters is a remarkable debut, and it will be fascinating to see where Gareth Edwards goes next.