[22 October 2010]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
If an alien invasion ever occurs, let’s hope it’s very similar to the one depicted in the independent sci-fi flick Monsters. It actually seems…survivable. No, the world is really no safer, six years in to the “accidental” unleashing of an extraterrestrial life form on planet Earth, and there is just as much mindless destruction from the visitors as our own overblown military machine. The real reason one should hope for the kids of conflict illustrated here is that, in general, Gareth Edwards’ movie is a meditation on the human spirit, on its desire to survive, and how, even under the most unnatural and cataclysmic circumstances, the population seems to energize and endure.
Of course, you don’t see much of said gumption out of our two exceptionally selfish leads. The storyline of Monsters focuses on photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) who is desperate for a scoop. Having traveled to Mexico near the start of the dreaded seasonal rise in alien activity, he hopes to capture the creatures “in action” and make a name for himself. During a ride-along with some soldiers, he stumbles across Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), daughter of his high powered, highly influential boss. As a favor, Kaulder agrees to shuttle the girl back to America. When their regular passage falls through, they must take the far more treacherous route through the incredibly dangerous ‘Quarantine Zone’. There, in a no man’s land of desolation and destruction, they must carefully maneuver to avoid meeting up with these giant beasts face to…face.
If the Devil is in the details, then Monsters is the Antichrist himself. This is a film that more or less thrives on the things you don’t notice, the overall look and feel of its fading future shock situations. Edwards, a visual effects wizard making his full length feature debut here, is not interested in Cloverfield levels of chaos or man in suit mayhem ala Godzilla. Instead, he is far more concerned with taking the premise and extrapolating it out to its full passive potential. Using the impoverished part of Mexico as a backdrop and adding in digital elements to suggest an uneasy calm within a combat zone, it’s the little things that spark our imagination: the various signs providing warning and procedural protocol; the news reports blaring in the background of scenes; the anarchic way within the outskirts of the quarantine; the various symbols of the aliens’ presence and abilities.
Anyone wanting big budget air battles with CG xenomorphs filling the screen will be very disappointed. There are only a few sightings on the title entities, and even then, they are viewed in glimpses and half-caught glances. Edwards purposefully makes them part of the environment, arguing that this is what reality would be like when the initial shock - and the attempted showdowns - have worn off. His main focus is on Kaulder and Sam, and while we initially could care less about their quarrelsome inability to get along, we eventually grow to sort-of sympathize. As it maneuvers its subtle narrative, Monsters does become less intimate and more focused on the big picture. This then allows us to settle in and start identifying with our leads. We may not always like them, and don’t really buy their budding romance, but given the outsized circumstances…
Indeed, it’s the atmosphere that wins us over, the evocative locations with their burned out aircraft and bombed out buildings. Even toward the end, when Kaulder and Sam find themselves in an abandoned gas station, complete with all the creature comforts, the combination of the recognizable and the unknown is startling. Since he obviously was hampered by a lack funds (reports have the budget hovering somewhere under $100K), Edwards needs to use every trick at his disposal. He wants to craft a situation that we all might identify with, much as Cormac McCarthy did with his post-apocalyptic missive The Road. But unlike that prize-winning novel, which turned humanity on itself in striking and sickening ways, our players are simply moving along predetermined paths, rules, regulations and bureaucratic babbling taking the place of suicidal standoffs.
There will be those who have a hard time with the pro-enviro ending, however. Though the sequence is amazing to look at (and has been set up well in the previous scenes involving the infected trees and waterways), and offers our best glimpse yet at the intruders, it does feel slightly sentimental, as if the violence before was nothing more than an insane overreaction to something very pure and…natual? One of the flaws here is that Edwards doesn’t give us enough of a juxtaposition - i.e. the creatures malevolence vs. their seeming docile nature - to warrant the proposed payoff. The movie need one or two more skyscraping crushing sequences to earn such a tone poem position. Sadly, they never arrive - but, of course, there was never an intention to deliver same.
Still, there is so much here to like, a dialed down approach to the otherwise apoplectic action film that easily wins over those tired out by the continuing Michael Bay-ing of the genre. Some will see the somber designs as a pitfall and consider passing, waiting for something like Skyline to fill the screen with massive process shots and freak show F/X wonder. What they fail to realize is that, sometimes, ideas can be just as spellbinding as hundreds of computer generated beasties. Monsters does fails to 100% fully realize the epic potential in its premise, but that’s quite all right. Instead, it makes the most of its limited screen time to infer what life would really be like under a limited alien invasion. While sustainable, the truth is much more depressing, and difficult to take.