Review: Monsters

Monsters (US-2010; dir. Gareth Edwards)

Reviewed by Robert Hood

To some extent, the title tells the story. Monsters is indeed a movie with monsters in it. They’re big, very alien and of daikaiju proportions. But is Monsters a Monster Movie? Ah, there’s the rub.

Six years before Monsters begins, a NASA probe carrying biological research material gathered from elsewhere in the solar system exploded over Central America. Strange alien life took hold across Mexico. The entire area — the “Infected Zone” — has been walled off to stop the infection from spreading.

That’s the background. The movie itself gets underway with a POV film record of a US military unit coming under attack from a huge cephalopodic monstrosity. The creature looms over buildings, smashes walls with its many tentacles, sends equipment flying and generally acts like a giant monster. This is revealed to be news footage watched in a Mexican bar by US photojournalist, Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), who is subsequently called upon to get his current employer’s daughter Whitney (Samantha Wynden) back to America. He tries, at first reluctantly, but his plans all go awry, and they end up treading a dangerous path through the Infected Zone itself, at the mercy of profiteers, mercenaries and assorted inhabitants of the Zone. In the course of their up-river journey, through jungles and ruins, they get to know each other beyond the superficialities that initially defined them. They also get to know the alien creatures better. And that’s the point.

There’s nothing overly generic about Monsters — or rather in terms of genre it’s worth keeping in mind that the film leans as much toward road-trip drama as it does thriller or monster flick, despite the presence of elements from both. The monsters, though omni-present, play a sort of background role, albeit a resonant one — McGuffins to the protagonists’ road-trip relationship drama and to a complex of themes and metaphorical resonances that director Edwards weaves into his sci-fi travelogue. Thematically, there’s evidence of commentary on US/Mexican border relations and the problem of illegal immigrants; the tendency of US foreign policy to demonise its perceived enemies; the role of targeted bombing on foreign territory. You could almost miss references made to the consequences of bombing strikes directed against the alien creatures, but in the final analysis it’s easy to assume that much of the destruction we see may be the result of air strikes rather than the monsters themselves. The monsters don’t seem to attack except when provoked. All they want to do is survive. In the end it’s the wider theme that life is not monstrous unless we make it so that is encapsulated in the film’s final scenes.

Some critics have complained of a lack of connection between the human story and the actions of the huge, alien, awesomely beautiful creatures that take place behind it. All I can say in response is that those critics must not have been paying attention. Or they were paying the wrong sort of attention. McGuffins the monsters may be, but they and their “story” play a major role in the film’s thematic undercurrents. Yes, Monsters is a Monster Movie, its creatures affecting or reflecting on everything else in the film — but it’s not an overly generic one.

Made on a shoestring budget, filmed on location by Edwards himself (without lighting rigs or complex equipment), the film looks a little like a Discovery Channel documentary, with supporting roles undertaken by locals. There are spectacular vistas and lots of South American colour. The wreckage of human civilisation through which Andrew and Whitney wander is extensive and impressive — possibly, in real life, the aftermath of natural disasters, with a touch of CGI added here and there for effect. In fact, Monsters is a miracle of editing and direction. Not frenetic, but taut and purposeful, it conveys information with minimal dialogue — compact, multi-layered and, though non-commercial, not at all obtuse in approach. The SFX work needs no apology either; any limitations could as easily be artistic choices. The CGI creatures appear mainly in the night, but their Cthulhan presence is all the more potent for the shadowy impressionism of their attacks and their alien nature is more effectively conveyed than more costly attempts to create a sense of otherness in bigger-budgeted films.

Unlike much independent cinema, Monsters feels both expansive and multi-layered, a complex of metaphors that belies the simplicity suggested by its basic premise. Certainly there is excitement and tension, but don’t expect a thriller-style aesthetic to be at work here. What you get is a great deal of beauty, even from scenes depicting the aftermath of monstrous destruction, a sense of awe, occasional suspense and affecting, underplayed drama. Good acting, excellent cinematography and intelligent direction make Monsters a thrilling experience in whatever genre you want to place it.

The Blu-ray transfer is excellent, too, and though night scenes can be overly dark (a consequence of the on-the-spot filming), the image provides enough detail to make obscurity evocative rather than an annoyance. The lossless sound transfer is the greatest beneficiary of high-definition technology, however. The film’s soundscape, especially during the night-in-the-jungle scenes and at the climax, is both awesome and beautiful, like the monsters themselves, their growls and whale-song cries shifting from frightening to melodic as our perception of them deepens.

Monsters is released in Australia by Madman Entertainment, on DVD and Blu-ray.

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6 Responses to Review: Monsters

  1. Tim says:

    It wasn’t the lack of monsters that made me dislike this movie so much as it was the storyline. The parts weren’t well-written at all. I’m sorry, but let’s look at what’s wrong with this movie. So this woman who’s running out on her husband-to-be is in the “Infected Zone”, so her father who’s wealthier than God is so concerned for her safety that he directs his great resources towards dispatching a melancholly photographer for whom he has no respect to ensure that she makes it to the ferry. Said photographer then makes sure they miss the ferry. The scene with the prostitute was ludicrous. The female lead acts like it’s some sort of betrayal even though she has a fiancee and Kaulder told her the previous night that he did that sort of thing all of the time. Why would she give him her passport anyway? So much of the “writing” flies in the face of logic. Yes, as an indie it’s interesting and yes the themes are noble, but as a movie it doesn’t live up to the hype. Maybe I’m not artsy, but I don’t think I need a movie to tell me that illegal immigrants are people too, or that terrorism is bad. The whole “MONSTERS is a beautiful movie” thing just seems too overblown to me. Sorry if this sounds like a rant. It was interesting, really, but these and other rave reviews are just. . . I don’t know. Weird.

  2. Robert Hood says:

    Weird or not, Tim, it was an honest response. I can’t accept most of your criticisms, but as they are personal responses of yours that’s fine. Personally I didn’t find the situation odd at all. It was obvious almost from the start that Whitney wasn’t happy about her relationship with her fiancee and that she was at least attracted to Andrew, so her upset over the prostitute in Andrew’s room seems normal. It certainly wasn’t overplayed. It’s also obvious that communications between the US and Mexico were difficult at best, and at that time in crisis mode, so that her father should take this opportunity to put the onus on an employee who opportunistically is in place seems logical to me. He had no other options. Overall your criticisms seem … extreme to me.

  3. eric says:

    i was so glad to find the movie in redbox after reading your review here. i think with most films i wanted to hate it, i wanted to find the flaws and talk about them out loud over and over, i’m a troubled person, haha, but i think movies are a high form of art and those that are great should be praised and those that have no heart should be shown no mercy, haha. so as i said i wanted to hate this film from the start.

    but half way through somthing happens and you notice your caught by the film, taken over, your brain is working over time to figure a way out, a solution to the problem the characters are in, and thats when you know your into a film and that film is going to be awsome and this film did not disappoint.

    this film was great, not king kong style intense monster movie, but a subtle beautiful story, such a great film….

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  5. Chris Lawson says:

    Rob,
    I liked MONSTERS but wasn’t quite as enthused by it as you. I still think, though, that it’s an amazing and historically important work of no-budget filmmaking and goes to prove that even on a shoestring budget people can make decent movies with good SFX (frankly better than the SFX in some of the quarter-billion-budget CGI-heavy studio movies I’ve seen recently) provided they put in a lot of hard work and care.
    I think Tim is right that the woman’s father, who really is wealthier than God, would have had better options than the plot dictates, but the plot annoyances in the movie are pretty slight. And I would completely reject Tim’s complaint that the movie is trying to tell us that “illegal immigrants are people too, and terrorism is bad.” One of the best things about the film is the way it never makes any overt statements about politics and doesn’t try to make the protagonists especially likeable or heroic.
    One correction, though (SPOILER ALERT!): the video footage at the start of the movie is actually a flash forward to what happens just after the closing scene.

  6. Robert Hood says:

    If you’re right about the early video footage, Chris, I completely missed it. I’ll have to check it out again. Might make a significant difference to my reading of the end?

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