The majority of the movie review is taken from my cinema review of Monsters, with some tweaks.
Everybody knows that Avatar cost about a half a billion to make and promote but, as pretty as it is, looks aren’t everything, and every now and then a movie comes along and proves just how much you can do with a whole lot less. A couple of years ago David Bowie’s son, Duncan Jones, spent less than a hundredth of Avatar’s budget creating Moon, a fantastic little, Brit-made, psychological sci-fi thriller, starring Sam Rockwell. If you haven’t seen it, you should – right now – it was one of the best movies of 2009. But at the end of last year we got something even more daring: a guerrilla-shot, almost entirely improvised-on-location-with-real-locals movie that costs something like $500,000 to make. Again, a British production, it took a real-life couple and transported them to Mexico, where they would interact with the locals, watch the military rumble down the streets in their tanks, and take a fairly eventful trip down river. It’s called Monsters.
Six years ago...
Nasa discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system
A space probe was launched to collect samples but broke up during re-entry over Mexico
Soon after new life forms began to appear and half the country was quarantined as an INFECTED ZONE
The Mexican & US Military still struggle to contain ‘the creatures’...
Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is a US war reporter, an ambitious photojournalist who has been dispatched to Mexico by his editor to find and escort Samantha (Whitney Able), the rich daughter of the owner of his newspaper, back to the States. What starts out as a simple task becomes yet more complicated as a series of unexpected turns lead the unlikely pair to take the long way home – getting to know each other along with way, meeting with dubious locals during their voyage, and ever-wary of the night-borne threat of the mysterious creatures that rumble in the jungle.
Monsters is a great little movie with a terrible title. Really, who were they trying to appeal to? Kids will be disappointed at the level of effects and action, and gore-hungry adults will be shocked at the complete lack thereof. If there was one thing that initially put me off the movie, it was the name. Thankfully I didn’t stop reading there.
What I found out is that actually Monsters is a very clever road movie, showing the natural evolution of a friendship/relationship between two people who have been put in quite a dangerous situation – played out against a futuristic District 9-esque backdrop – with a hint of corresponding socio-political commentary running beneath the surface. After its surprise opening, the scene is set: the US is under attack, locking up its borders to protect themselves from invasion from these extraterrestrial creatures, and getting to the border – getting across the ‘infected zone’ – can be quite dangerous. We are introduced to these two people and immediately sense a little chemistry. Yes, you can see the big engagement ring on her finger, but you know that – were it not for that ring – something may have happened between these two. They immediately establish themselves as a likeable pair to follow on this journey, and you have absolutely no idea what to expect once they get going: and neither do they.
It’s an involving voyage, peppered with strange shifting masses in the water, creepy noises in the jungle, seemingly tall tales told by armed rebels around a campfire, and the persistent warning never to go out at night. And all the while you discover more about these two people, their history, what got them in this mess in the first place, and what’s waiting for them when they get back ‘home’. But it’s what’s waiting for them along the way that has you gripped to your seats.
And it’s interesting to know that the filmmakers probably didn’t even know what was waiting for them when they put this baby together. It was literally all just two relatively unknown actors – a now-husband-and-wife couple – along with a crew of about half a dozen people, travelling around Mexico and shooting improvised conversations with the locals, passing military vehicles and shady, armed rebels. The end result has been edited down into a fairly taut 94 minute movie which is more of a mystery romance than an out-and-out sci-fi horror; more road movie than thriller, despite having elements of all of the above within it.
The effects were apparently done by one guy – the man behind the whole thing, Gareth Edwards – working in his bedroom for months. And, for the most part, it paid off. He keeps his tension high by keeping much of the creepiness off-screen, painting his creatures largely in shadow, or in the coiling of tentacles over some inanimate object. When you do get to see them, his adopted bioluminescent Kraken-like design is extremely effective – arguably more so than Spielberg’s War of the Worlds invaders – somehow both otherworldly and strangely familiar, and never less than imposing by their very stature. The whole thing is helped no end by a moody, ethereal electronica score, by composer Jon Hopkins, who appears to be channelling Clint Mansell’s haunting Solaris score, to good effect, beautifully infusing the proceedings with that extra level of unease and mystery.
“Let me ask you something: do you know how much your father’s company pays for a picture of a child killed by a creature? $50,000. Do you know how much money I get paid for a picture of a happy child? Nothing. Do you know where that puts me? Photographing tragedy.”
Keeping the narrative focussed on the characters, and on the little events that befall them – a stalled engine causing them trouble as they are stranded out at night; the covering-up of a lamp to prevent their getting seen by the creatures – Edwards works wonders with the little he has, and still delivers the goods. At the heart of it you get to know and care about this pair, worry for them as they trust their passage to some dubious locals, and fear for their treacherous journey through the jungle, all the while wondering whether they will ever confront the growing bond between them, and the impact it has – if admitted – on the lives waiting for them back in the States. And the realistic cynicism of McNairy’s war-time journalist plays off interestingly against Able’s pampered rich-kid – you can see them both evolving over the course of the movie, the former rediscovering his humanity, and the latter gaining some perspective. The Director captures the facial nods between these two – who are surprisingly good at portraying two strangers who gradually develop some chemistry with each other – almost as well as he captures the beautiful landscape (one stunning sunset reflected on the rippling water by the boat standing out as one of the most beautiful celluloid shots I have seen for quite some time). Terrence Malick would be proud.
When this movie is good, it’s really good. And even if the anti-anti-immigration commentary was an unintentional subtext that came purely from filming in that location, the allegory to the US fight against ‘terror’ is unquestionable – hinting at the fact that they are their own worst enemy (perhaps the 'monsters' of the title?). But it’s not an Avatar in-your-face kind of statement, but more an observation on tolerance, misuse of force (and ineffectiveness thereof) and a distinct lack of communication. The walls can’t keep nature out.
Even more apparent on a second viewing (in the comfort of your own home), you realise that Edwards has produced an interesting, often beautiful voyage through foreign lands that actually does feel surprisingly complete, especially when you consider that it’s actual runtime is little over an hour and a half. Originally I felt that some bits were too drawn out, and that some moments went on for too long, giving the movie an air of pretentiousness. But this is the kind of trip that seeps into you through methodical pacing, and by allowing you to absorb the stunning vistas and slowly changing sentiments. There’s still an undeniable prevalence of jumpy moments, but with no pay-off – you know, when you’re expecting something to happen, then somebody makes a loud noise (like suddenly starting an engine), and it makes you sit up in your seat? Well I didn’t like that they implemented this attention-grabbing technique a few times too often, especially when this is a far cry from a horror movie, and it dips occasionally into boy-who-cries-wolf category.
And the effects, whilst amazingly realised for the most part (especially considering the budget) are absolutely awful indoors. We’re talking about scenes reminiscent of Cameron’s The Abyss, and that was made over 20 years ago! Really, he should have stuck to night-time and outdoor sequences, as these were both much more effective (some of the daytime landscape effects shots are seamlessly integrated). The diner scene is arguably the one moment that risks taking you out of the movie. But honestly, these are still tiny slights on an otherwise moody, ethereal and highly atmospheric journey.
All in all, Monsters is a superior effort considering the budget, showcasing truly inspirational, opportunistic and improvisational filmmaking techniques, all perfectly utilised to make a professional movie that stands up amazingly well on both the Big Screen and closer home format inspection. Seriously, this is probably one of those word-of-mouth movies which you simply should not miss; for such a low budget it’s got a grand scale to it; you honestly won’t be disappointed. And if you did miss it, now is the time to make amends and pick it up on Blu-ray (oh and do pay attention to the final scene – easier to reassess now – and its parallels/tying-up with the ‘prologue’; it’s a very ingenious, unexpected twist).
Don’t expect Aliens, or even District 9; don’t expect Jurassic Park, or even Cloverfield – Monsters delivers hints of all of the above, but what you should really watch it for is just the romantic trip around real Mexico, with extra-terrestrial creatures looming somewhere in the background. After all, it’s so much more than that, but the real joy is in finding out. Don’t be put off by the name either, because the movie truly is something of a surprise gem in amidst last year’s mixed-bag of film releases; a Brit indie-flick made for a shoestring budget, which stands up against all those brainless Blockbusters out there and shows off genuinely intelligent, innovative filmmaking at its best. For all those mega-budget films out there, which are totally lacking in originality, it’s amazing what you can do with so little, just so long as you have a decent idea. Recommended viewing.