Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A (n Old) Film Review

a film by Gareth Edwards

"That's the film where nothing happens and then something with tentacles molests a petrol station isn't it?" Is possibly the funniest and pithiest one line review I've read about this film; yet, despite finding the review also quite accurate that was said by someone who hated this film, whereas I think it is an understated masterpiece.

Monsters is a love story between the slightly ditzy daughter of a media magnate and the deeply offensive photographer charged with ensuring she gets back to the USA from a rapidly disintegrating Central America. This is happening against a background of tension and fear brought about by aliens that were accidentally brought to Earth by a shuttle mission, which have colonised a huge part of Mexico and along most of the US border. It is a deeply paranoid world full of death, destruction, opportunism, the aftermath and gas masks.

The film is deeply allegorical. Scott McNairy, the photographer, has become desensitised to the havoc all around him and is a kind of empathy-less 'monster', drinking, womanising and generally treating the deprivation as an opportunity. Whitney Able, the media mogul's daughter, is out of her depth and ripe for exploitation; she is a monster in the way she is depicted as this rich young brat floating through the world, unaware of the real dangers and the only other main character, Mario Zuniga Benavides, a man who arranges for safe passage through or around the Infected Zone, is a true monster in that he worships Mammon and has obviously benefited from being a heartless, profiteering nasty piece of work.

You get almost 50% of the way through the movie without seeing much of the aliens at all; they appear on the TV in the background; there's evidence every where of their presence and the emphasis of the film is to show the way the relationship between Kaulder (McNairy) and Sam (Able) develops, or doesn't seem like it is, especially when a series of almost stupid things place her and then ultimately him in considerably more danger than either should have been.

Kaulders whiny attitude and Sam's rabbit-in-the-headlights ignorance is accentuated by the fact they are the 'aliens' in a foreign country; they are being exploited by the situation and they have little or no control but have to go wherever events take them - a little like the aliens when we finally meet them. It is never clear what affect they have on humans; if they are the source of any real infection and whether or not they just retaliate rather than act as aggressors; in fact, the aliens are as much used as an allegory as the rest of the film. It is a film makers film; it is a clever story tellers story; a great combination of an intelligent director using the script to best Illustrate what is going on without it really having to be said.

It is a film that doesn't rely on dialogue too much, but that isn't to say it lacks in powerful words; it's just the director has seen pain and beauty in much of the Central American landscapes he has chosen to use and this explains better than any dialogue what has gone on here.

The interesting, for me, thing about the film is how it speeds along despite there being big chunks where nothing much happens and it can feel like an amateur travelogue. But we're dealing with 8 legged octopus creatures and you get the sense that if something as weird as this actually happened, this is what it would be like, 6 years after the event; this is how people would react; this is more about the human condition than the alien 'invasion'.

It's possible that Edwards and his crew took advantage of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, because some of the scenes from the southern USA show harrowing scenes of destruction and desolation on a scale that belied the modest budget this film was made with and because of this stark realism it made it even more believable. As for the line about 'molesting a petrol station', this for me was the punch line, the raison d'etre of the film. The main characters are in a gas station that has, like everywhere else, been abandoned, presumably because the massive defences built along the border no longer stopped the aliens from spreading; it is clear that we're losing a war that only we appear to be fighting and to have the denouement in a petrol station is a perfect way of showing the ordinariness of everything outside of the aliens.

It appears that the aliens are like us in that they just want to be together, albeit for fleeting moments, to possibly procreate or just to say 'hi, I love you' and go back to whatever they were doing - and that is what happens at the gas station. While Kaulder and Sam reconnect with their lives, which in Sam's case is one she no longer wants and for Kaulder is a painful experience; two aliens find each other, fondle a bit while singing to each other and then go their own way just before the army turn up and return the movie to the harshness that runs through it like the ripple in ice cream.

It is a road movie and a love story with some aliens as a background but there is a parallel line between the two stories, one told so subtly that you could miss it, or not care about it, because even when the inevitable happens between our two main characters you can't help thinking that neither of them have become any more likeable as individuals, but together they have some spark and even with that there is abruptness and more allegory.

There are things that happen that make you question certain actions, the same way you shout at the single girl wandering down into the cellar full of psychopaths; yet, this is set in the future and embraces the fact that things like iphones and the digital age are in our consciousness all the time; the feeling that you can walk past something deadly, but as long as you're taping/filming it you've got immunity.

I described it as 'understated' and that is exactly how it wants itself to be seen; a story about two not even ordinary people thrown together because of the desperation of the situation. You don't even think they have a future after the credits roll because that isn't what this film is about.

A mention for the hauntingly superb incidental music by Jon Hopkins, which really added to the atmosphere and conveyed a sense of change, of menace and of an uplift in fortunes.

I can completely understand why people didn't like the film, how they found it boring because for lots of it nothing happens, but life is like that and you don't need to have massive budget special effects or lots of monster screen time to put across the feeling of doom and foreboding. The fact that the special effects cost less than a terraced house in Telford to make and were done on a laptop and then added to the film after is a testament to excellent film making and the vision that Edwards had. If his reboot of Godzilla is atmospherically anything like this we can safely consign the 1999 popcorn movie to history.

Monsters isn't what you expect but don't let the fact it isn't an action adventure movie with aliens stop you from enjoying it; if there hadn't been aliens in it and the two protagonists were just fleeing a civil war people would be calling it a work of genius.

8.5 out of 10.


  1. "Disliked" rather than "hated". Hate is for things like Prometheus"