'Monsters': After the (Almost) Fall of Man

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.


Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Whitney Able, Scoot McNairy
Rated: R
Studio: Magnet Releasing
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-10-29 (General release)

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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

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With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

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(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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