Sunday, March 13, 2011
Monsters (Gareth Edwards, 2010) [Netflix Watch Instantly]
Gareth Edwards Monsters is another film adding some adult perspective to the wide world of science fiction. Though the narrative does have some elements surrounding alien invasion, this isn't about our hero's saving the earth from the invading hordes. Instead, it's much more a road movie about two people who are lost in more than the journey they're undertaking as part of the film, but lost in the larger sense as well.
The film tells the story of a photojournalist, Andrew Kaulder (played by Scoot McNairy, a name I find infinitely amusing) making his way across South America, documenting the results of a NASA probe having returned and crashed with an alien life form attached to it. These aliens have multiplied and are wreaking havoc across a wide swath of territory, stretching from what would have been northern most Mexico on down. The area where the creatures are most populated has been labeled The Infected Zone, just south of the United States border, and our intrepid photographer is headed in that direction hoping to score the kind of picture that pays the bills for a long time.
But, as always... there's a snag. In a call home to the publisher he plans to sell these pictures to, he's informed that the daughter of the man who owns the publishing company is trapped in Mexico, and needs to be sent home. Of course, this is not what Kaulder had in mind when heading south of the border, and isn't interested in babysitting while he's trying to find his get rich quick pic. Unfortunately for him, when the owner of the major publishing conglomerate is asking to have his daughter returned home safely, he's obliged to help. Samantha Wynden is our titular damsel in distress (played by Whitney Able). From there, our protagonists set off on a journey to get Samantha safely back into the U.S, which of course, doesn't go exactly as planned.
The short version of the story is that I really enjoyed this film. What is probably my favorite aspect of the film is that the characters are extremely well written, conceived and drawn. Too often (and especially in genre films) the characters seem to be plot devices. They don't seem like people who have an entire life's history that is coming with them to the story that's playing out in the film. In Monsters, the fact that the characters very obviously have a much larger story than this one specific episode in their lives, is one of it's most interesting aspects, resulting in a feeling of discovery permeating the entire film. We're discovering things about these characters as they're discovering them about each other and themselves, but most of it is done in such a simple way that it feels organic and much more akin to what it's like to actually get to know people, instead of having character elements lumped together or thrown at the audience to give the appearance of character development where there actually wasn't any. That journey, and that sense of discovery are central to the film, and the geographic journey they're taking is almost secondary, but it also adds to the sense of discovery and wonder that the great acting and character work create.
Another interesting aspect of the film, and one that is truly unusual, is the portrayal of these alien creatures. This isn't an alien army attempting to take control of the planet or to conquer humanity in order to enslave them. It's much more a matter of simple Darwinian theory. These creatures are much more animal-like than what we're used to in a science fiction narrative. There is no sweeping strategy or plot. They've just landed on a planet with a favorable environment, and are doing the things that life forms do in that situation, eating, reproducing, protecting territory etc. They're not even particularly interested in eating humans, so they're not horror movie monsters in any way. They're just doing what animals all over the planet have always done, and as has been true with so many other species, that puts them in competition with humans for both territory and resources. Gareth Edwards, in both writing and directing the film, manages to walk a very fine line with real grace. The creatures are at points terrifying and at other points objects of wonder. Think Jurassic Park if the dinosaurs weren't trying to eat people, but were still trying to get out of the park and be dinosaurs, doing what dinosaurs do, while people were trying to stop them and you might start to get a handle on the way Edwards "monsters" are portrayed.
The cinematography in the film is gorgeous. Again, it's Gareth Edwards who deserves the credit for this, as he's actually also the cinematographer on the film. There are some wide shots during a river sequence in the film that immediately call to mind the most hauntingly beautiful shots in Apocalypse Now, and even in the more intimate close ups and "one shots" of the actors are awesome, giving those scenes a quality that is extremely intimate, but gorgeous at the same time. Edwards camera work is as good as his writing and his directing. He's also responsible for the special effects, which for a low budget indie are fantastic. His IMDB page suggests that prior to Monsters he's been doing work in television, which almost seems like a waste of talent. The number of roles he's taken on to make this movie, and produce something this good is somewhat mind boggling. Then again, with this amount of talent, anyone who's looking to produce great content should be willing to pay this guy to do basically whatever he wants.
Both Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy are very good as the protagonists, and I wouldn't be shocked to see either of them starting to pick up smaller roles in bigger Hollywood films very soon. Because this isn't a science fiction, special effects extravaganza, and the narrative is so personal in nature, the organic quality and very real nature they bring to both of their characters is another big part of what makes the films so successful. In some ways, it's almost as if Monsters is what you get when mumble core meets meets Hollywood style science fiction bonanza's, and as in mumble core, the degree of charisma and grounded-ness of the characters and the actors portrayal of them is central to any success the film hopes to have. The film works as well as it does because these characters and their story is the central aspect of the film, and the more fantastic elements are just a part of these two people's lives at this particular point in time, giving the entire film a feeling of being in a world that actually could exist and the narrative a kind of cohesive nature that isn't normally found in high concept film making. Just because these alien creatures are wondering around the planet, doesn't mean humans stop acting like humans and doing the things humans have always done. Everyday life isn't at a stand still, which is part of the films charm.
All in all, I can recommend this to just about anyone, but especially to people who have enjoyed some of the more intelligent and adult science fiction films of the last decade. This isn't as flashy and exciting as District 9, but it's not as cerebral as Moon (my review) or as pulpy and shocking as Splice (my review). It is very much it's own film, with it's own story to tell and it's own way of telling it. What it does have in common with those films is the fundamental humanity at it's core that they have all addressed in very different, but effective and entertaining ways.