Monsters (2010) / Sci Fi-Adventure
MPAA Rated: R for language
Running time: 94 min.
Cast: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenplay: Gareth Edwards
Review published February 17, 2011
More of a somber independent drama and budding love story than a rip-roaring sci-fi alien invasion creature feature, Monsters is a victim of its own subject matter and marketing, as the audience that will appreciate it most will avoid a film with this title, while those that might be attracted to it will grow impatient that there isn't enough rampant death and destruction. Most of the storyline is a mix of travel frustrations, road trip conversations and lengthy jungle crawl, as two Americans in Central America must travel through increasingly dangerous territory to return home. What makes the territory dangerous is almost secondary, though it just so happens to be giant "floating" octopuses who're inhabiting a good deal of the area south of the United States border into Mexico. These creatures who've mutated from outer space habitually destroy buildings and vehicles, and slaughter the occasional human or two, and even air strikes by the U.S. have thus far proven to be of little effect on stemming the tide of these creatures.
The two Americans in question are Andrew Kaulder (McNairy, Mr. Fixit), a photojournalist sent by his publisher to round up Samantha 'Sam' Wynden (Able, All the Boys Love Mandy Lane), his boss's daughter, and bring her back home safe and sound. The bulk of the film deals with the difficulty of the duo trying to make it home, as travel costs a good deal of money and the season for travel has only a small window where safety can be mostly assured. When their plans fall through, the only way home is through the infected zone where the "monsters" roam freely (the beginning of the film describes the origin of the monsters as having occurred when a NASA space probe carrying evidence of extraterrestrial life crashes down in Mexico several years in the past) and military strikes are abundant, making the place nearly uninhabitable for most humans unfortunate enough to be stuck there. They are assisted by guides that barely speak English, all the while dealing with a mutual attraction that's mostly complicated by the fact that Sam is engaged.
The creatures are the film's biggest oddity. Why to they resemble octopi? Why do they tip-toe, and how do their tentacles hold the weight of their bodies? Why do they glow? Why do they spawn from what appears to be fungi?
To a large extent, such things don't really matter to the overall themes of the film, so belief must be suspended, as the film is very vague in that area, as it isn't the main thrust. This is Gareth Edwards's first theatrical attempt at writing and directing after working for several years as a world-traveling visual effects supervisor, and sometimes animator and cinematographer, for television documentaries. The effects aren't abundant, but when they're employed, they are nearly seamless with the shaky-cam slow-paced action featuring real people and environs, Giant fences are erected around cities, fighter jets and helicopters are always on the prowl, pickup trucks get picked up and crash down, and all are quite realistic. If the reported budget of $15,000 is to be believed, Edwards is unquestionably a phenomenal talent. Other sources quote up to $800,000 -- depends how you count it.
So, are the creatures in Monsters just a metaphor for something larger, akin to District 9 and its underlying themes? Is it about illegal immigration between the U.S. and Mexico (literal illegal ALIENS)? Is it about the drug wars that have erupted in the very same region? Is it about how a superior species causes monumental change for those subject to them, just as the animals on Earth are subject to the recklessly oblivious actions by humans? Or is all this merely an excuse for Edwards to showcase all of his immense talents in one titillating package (indeed, Edwards' work on this film helped him to get the directors gig for the upcoming remake of a renowned alien monster flick, Godzilla)? In the end, it's as artistic as its intentions, that life is just crazy and random, and like art, it is what you make of it.
Even if it isn't completely satisfying, Monsters is refreshing for viewers looking for something different from the norm. In most creature features, the films are about the special effects and action, while the human characters are merely the fodder for continuing to showcase the cool-looking aliens and the havoc they wreak. Edwards takes the opposite approach by continuing to showcase the human element, and the monstrous aliens are the fodder for the personal story of two people, out of sorts, finding themselves sharing a bond beyond friendship, survivors who grow to deeply appreciate each other from their shared experience of both the fantastic and the harrowing. It's a film about how humans learn to cope, no matter how much despair and catastrophe surrounds us. When the monsters are winning, we all have to deal with them in our own ways.
©2011 Vince Leo