Fri 5 Nov 2010
On-screen text opens writer/director Gareth Edwards’ “Monsters”, letting us know that six years ago, a NASA probe laden with proof of extraterrestrial life crash landed in Mexico. The creatures that sprung forth over that period of time led to half of America’s southern neighbor being quarantined as an Infected Zone. The film unfolds as a photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) ends up being forced by his boss to escort his stranded daughter (Whitney Able) back to the U.S. – though their plan to take the safest route goes awry and we’re brought along on their journey to make it through the zone.
Audiences hoping this is just another creature feature are going to be very disappointed upon leaving “Monsters”. This isn’t a dumb horror flick, based around visual effects and a heavy dose of blood and gore. Rather, Edwards has crafted a deeply intimate tale of two strangers, both at a fragile point in their lives – forced together by a surreal set of circumstances.
As at least one of these characters is on-screen 99% of the time, it was crucial to find the right pair of actors. Edwards thought that the chemistry would work better if he could find actors who were in a real-life relationship with each other and thankfully found Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (in case you’re wondering, they’re now newlyweds … and stop being so nosy). There have been plenty of cases when pairing actors who are in a relationship with each other fails to materialize in on-screen heat but that’s not a problem here.
From their initial meeting, where only a handful of words and little more than curious glances are exchanged, it was clear that these two characters had that elusive spark. Adding to the natural and raw vibe of their interactions is that Edwards largely let the actors make up their dialogue. While the director had a very distinct goal of what each scene should be about, he merely gave the actors guidelines and events that they should be reacting to once the cameras began to roll. Normally a characteristic of the so-called mumblecore film genre, this sort of improvisation gave the picture a very frank and honest sensibility that would have been lacking from most conventional methods.
And despite the polished look of the film, make no mistake that this is a labor of love; an independent film wrapped in the sheep’s clothing of a big budget sci-fi movie. The production budget reportedly lies in the $15,000 range which is ridiculous considering how good it looks and the quality of the visual effects. Additionally, this all came from a 4-person crew traveling through Mexico, Guatemala and Belize with the two lead actors, snatching up locals to fill in roles when necessary; again, simply amazing considering the final product.
Perhaps the best comparison would be to say that this would be the independent film companion to its more traditional sci-fi pic, “District 9“. They are both original and intelligent sci-fi films, created outside the studio system for far less money than they deserved; and while director Neill Blomkamp’s opus on stranded humanoid aliens doubled for a commentary on social issues affecting South Africa, so too does Edwards use “Monsters” as a means to talk about the American global perspective. While we are just beginning to gather more information about world events and espouse our beliefs regarding our role in the big picture, the truth is that most of us will see a tragic story happening halfway around the world, sympathize for a few minutes, and then resume our normal daily lives.
Now, I can understand why I heard some grumbling from the screening audience as they left the theater. This film is about two people, getting to know one another through snippets of conversation, all while extra terrestrial creatures are roaming the wilderness surrounding them. It is a story about connection first and foremost; the interactions with these alien behemoths are kept to a bare minimum (for the sake of the story, and perhaps budgetary reasons as well).
However, whether the scene calls for a giant creature to be attacking an armed convoy or if it’s a quiet moment between McNairy and Able as they take refuge at the top of some temple ruins, Edwards beautifully frames each scene. He plays ever so delicately and confidently with the focus of background and foreground elements, utilizing a burst of color or the eerie and demolished landscape to great effect.
Put simply, his cinematography and use of incorporating visual effects shots primarily because it serves the story, not simply to titillate the audience, rank up there with the best of 2010. Add on the writing/story boarding duties and you truly have a film that benefits from having a singular vision behind the camera, as Edwards was in complete control of nearly every aspect. He also smartly chose Jon Hopkins to compose the score, which is used sparsely but quite effectively and stands as one of the best of the year.
After reading though the production notes, I’m astounded at the obstacles that the cast and crew had to overcome (it’s not quite safe to go tramping though jungles, no matter the quality of government assigned bodyguards) and my initial reaction to seeing the film is that I want to see it again. I’d take great joy in picking over each meticulous detail that Edwards has crafted and seeing what I might have missed the first go-around, as my focus was squarely on the big picture – on how all of these elements worked as a whole. I do find some fault with the very end of the picture, not so much in where the credits begin to roll but in how McNairy and Able’s characters handle their last scene on-screen. Still, “Monsters” crept its way into my psyche, kept me thinking about it long after I had left the theater, and gets a 4.5 out of 5.
This isn’t a film that will appeal to the widest demographic, as it truly plays like an independent film with a sci-fi underpinning. But if you’re like me, and enjoy being given a wide latitude both during and after the film has ended to speculate on the ramifications of the events that unfold on-screen, then I wholeheartedly recommend “Monsters”. I especially suggest that you see it on the big screen, in order to fully enjoy the many gorgeous shot selections and take advantage of that big, dark theater to keep you immersed in the world that Edwards has created. A big hi-def TV will do the job but it’s not quite the same … and this is one of the few films worth the extra effort this year.