Monday, 6 December 2010

'Monsters' review:

Let me get one thing out of the way at the beginning of this review. Yes, it is indeed impressive that young British director Gareth Edwards has made his debut film, the sci-fi, road movie 'Monsters', for reportedly less than half a million dollars. More impressive still is that he not only wrote and directed the film, but acted as his own cinematographer and even did all the films digital effects at home on his computer, apparently using relatively affordable software. This is indeed laudable, and points towards a future where big, special effects blockbusters may be made by indie filmmakers just as well as by big studios. And what a future that could be. Imaginative filmmakers with epic visions who constantly find themselves restricted by the commercial interests of the studios (such as Alex Cox and Terry Gilliam) might be able to make the kind of ambitious films they always wanted to make.

Gareth Edwards is not alone in thinking big with limited resources. Uruguayan amateur Fede Alvarez made headlines last year by earning himself a big Hollywood contract after achieving success on YouTube with his four minute short film called 'Ataque de Panico'. That film also had a big sci-fi concept which would usually cost more than that short's stated $300 budget, as it depicted giant robots attacking Uruguay's capital city of Montevideo. Earlier in 2009, Canadian brothers Ian and David Purchase achieved a huge internet following with their short film adaptation of the Half-Life 2 video game, 'Half-Life: Escape from City 17', which also boasted impressive effects and a sense of scale on a meagre budget. Video games have inspired countless others too - including polished fan film versions of Pokemon and Street Fighter - but the highest profile one saw 'Fame' remake helmer Kevin Tancharoen shooting his own D.I.Y Mortal Kombat short in an effort to pitch a full movie to studios. No doubt the the box office success of 'Monsters' will inspire a few more on a feature length scale and this can only be a good thing.

However, forget for a second the film's low-budget and other indie credentials (it stars Scoot McNairy of 'In Search of a Midnight Kiss' fame alongside a supporting cast of non-actors) and what you have in 'Monsters' is a fairly unfulfilling film which didn't satisfy me as a creature feature nor as a relationship drama.

The plot is as follows: a photojournalist (Andrew played by McNairy) is asked by his boss to escort his daughter (Samantha played by Whitney Able) from Mexico back to her home in the United States. After missing the last boat back, the pair decide to embark on the journey by land. This would sound like a simple enough trip. Except this story is set in the near future, where the land between the newly drawn borders of Mexico and the USA is the "infected zone" - home to extraterrestrial creatures accidentally brought down to Earth by a malfunctioning NASA probe. Worse still, the infected zone is under constant bombardment by the US Air Force, who carpet bomb the whole area to keep the aliens at bay. As you'd expect with such a modest budget, the aliens are very rarely seen and instead the film is more focused on the dynamic between Samantha and Andrew.

This would be fine if either of them were interesting or if they ever had anything interesting to say. 'Monsters' is suffocated by constant exposition with people saying things like "so let me get this straight: we have 48 hours to get to the coast" and when we aren't having things we have just seen and heard simplified for us we are forced to spend our time in the company of a couple of morons. Andrew has, he tells us, seen the corpses of the aliens before on several occasions. The creatures are also on the television news or caricatured by informative children's cartoons whenever we see a television. The duo are aware they are heading through the infected zone, as a great many sign posts tell them so. They see the destruction of areas affected by the so-called monsters. Yet when confronted by them they are forever shouting (and I mean shouting) "what the hell is that thing", over and over and over again.

The shouting doesn't stop even when their armed guards - who by the way are asked several times "why have you guys got guns?" (gee, I wonder why) - tell them to be quiet during one attack sequence. The pair just can't shut up, forever yelping "why are you putting your gas masks on?" (even though that very question was the subject of a public service broadcast aimed at children in a previous scene). When they pass through a destroyed town they ask aloud "all these people's homes. But where are all the people?" They are infuriating human beings who are just begging to be made victims of intergalactic assault. What's more, Andrew is totally inept at his job. When he isn't taking cliché, sub-Banksy photos of children wearing gas masks or playing with barbed wire, he is going on a cathartic journey to grow a conscience which ultimately sees him cover up a dead child's body rather than take a picture for his employers. It is supposed to be a sign that he has, in leaving supposed civilization, rediscovered what it means to be human. By contrast the human world - which, full of greed and evil, pays for pictures of dead children - has become alien. To me it just shows that the film doesn't understand the role such photojournalism has played in turning public opinion against violent wars since Vietnam. Certainly, there is a moral ambiguity to it, but it isn't a simple case of "right and wrong". But 'Monsters' isn't a nuanced film and Edwards it seems would rather resort to trite, sentimental corn than face the more complex realities of the human condition.

This heavy-handed moralising about the modern world continues into the films 'Avatar'-like eco message and in its meaningless symbolism as the American troops at the beginning are shown attacking an alien at a petrol station. To what end? I couldn't tell you. Accept that it's making some loose connection between the American's attack on the creatures and the war in Iraq. Edgy stuff that should take the heat off Julian Assange once Washington finds out. The film also suggests that Mexican officials are corrupt, leading me to wonder whether a deleted scene would have revealed the toiletry habits of bears.

I can't help but feel that the film's shallow "humans are bad" rhetoric would be dismissed if this were larger film, perhaps directed by James Cameron. It's a message that makes no sense either. Whilst in the infected wilderness they encounter the aforementioned dead child. They also see the eviscerated bodies of people they were travelling with. What is so wonderful about the aliens is anyone's guess. Just that they're not human. Because we humans are so terribly, terribly bad, you see. It is a po-faced film which is smugly satisfied by its seriousness. Edwards knows that everyone will line up to gush "it's a monster film that isn't about the monsters!" - as if that was what we'd all been waiting for.

'Monsters' didn't thrill me and it certainly didn't move me either. Yet I must return to the first point of this review and put the thing back in its context as a film that cost a first-time director less than $500,000 to make. With that in mind it is an excellently well designed film. If you didn't know it was made on the cheap, you probably wouldn't be able to tell from what is an extremely handsomely made film. Much like that of last year's 'District 9', the world Edwards creates is an interesting one and you are drawn to wonder at the story around the story. You scan the world for details which will give you more information about this time and place, with these strange circumstances told to you in a matter of fact way and made to seem highly plausible. It is also a credit to Edwards that he stages his scenes of tension well, even if they are all ripped straight out of the Spielberg playbook (the car attack scene is lifted from 'Jurassic Park', whilst the encounter with a curious alien in the gas station is reminiscent of a similar sequence in 'War of the Worlds') - perhaps appropriate given that Spielberg's first short movies required similar ingenuity in terms of homemade special effects.

As a film, I wasn't sold on 'Monsters'. But as part of a growing and exciting trend it thrills me absolutely. I can only imagine what we'll see in the future if anyone with an idea and the talent can feasibly make whatever film they want to. Indie filmmakers have long between able to make gritty, social realism films and small scale dramas. But maybe now science fiction and fantasy are not out of reach. I don't want to oversell it: Gareth Edwards may have only spent $500,000 making this film, but he still had half a million dollars at his disposal (not to mention the backing of Vertigo Films). But who knows? Maybe the next 'Star Wars' or 'Lawrence of Arabia' will be made in a bedroom rather than a movie studio.

'Monsters' is rated '12A' by the BBFC and is out now in the UK. It is playing this week at Brighton's Duke of York's Picturehouse cinema.

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