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Non-Review Review: Monsters

At this stage it seems almost pointless to reflect on how impressive Monsters is from a purely film-making perspective. Filmed on a ridiculously tiny budget, the film features a wonderful epic scale, beautiful locations and not-half-bad special effects (they’re more The Mist than Avatar, but let’s not complain). It’s the latest “look what modern film directors can do on a shoe string!” picture, one that you drop into conversation when you wonder how a film like Transformers can cost as much as it does. Unfortunately, as bedazzling as these aspects are, and they are very bedazzling, the film has several shortcomings which have nothing to do with budget.

Here be monsters...

Set six years after NASA foolishly brought alien spores raining down to Earth, there’s a huge tract of land between Mexico and the United States that has been deemed “infected” by these strange extraterrestrial organisms. The Mexicans struggle to keep the creatures out with a fence that looks like it was picked up second-hand from Jurassic Park, while the Americans build a giant frickin’ wall to prevent the aliens from expanding.

Against this backdrop, we follow two characters as they attempt to make their way from Mexico back to the States, as these creatures enter a particularly active cycle of their existence. The film suggests that they migrate on an annual schedule, tied to their biological impulses – like salmon, except giant land-dwelling octopods instead. Don’t let the title fool you. Although the movie is called “monsters”, it’s really about the two lead characters trying to find their way home, with everything unfolding in the background.

What a waste(land)...

The movie fairly effectively crafts its world. Some of the shots are downright incredible, and the location scouts deserve to make a lot more money than they probably did. The movie is able to find ruins and destroyed suburban sprawls for our heroes to move through, each filmed in exquisite beauty. Particularly during the phase where our two leads are travelling by river boat, the movie is something to behold, with rich shades of yellow and red and blue dancing across the screen. Later on, as they arrive in a destroyed community that can’t help but evoke memories of post-Katrina New Orleans, it’s absolutely breathtaking.

There’s a lot of thought and care put into making the world our character inhabit seem real. We catch glimpses of memorials, and informational cartoons, and worn-down murals all reflecting the fact that these monsters are something that the local community has just learned to live with. To the Mexicans, they are a fact of life. We get hints of the life-cycle of the creatures, a rather wonderful sound design. The visual effects work is grand, and genuinely become impressive when you factor in the budget that the film was produced on.

In the jungle, the mighty jungle... Cthulu sleeps tonight...

Indeed, the movie tips its hat towards any number of sources, admitting a fondness for trashy pop culture. The origin of the strange creatures (a probe burning up over the United States) recalls Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. The octopus design of the creatures calls to mind the monsters of H.P. Lovecraft, or even films like The Mist. However, the idea the film presents of nature going wild (with the creatures even growing from the trees themselves), and the hints of inherent beauty and majesty in these terrifying monsters, calls to mind Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, perhaps the most expensive b-movie ever made. In fact, one of the film’s final scenes features a character coming to a realisation about these immigrants which reminded me a lot of a similar moment in that classic dinosaur film.

There’s also a rather rich allegorical element to the movie. In case you didn’t get the subtext, the United States is actually building a wall to keep illegal aliens out of their country. The trip that our leads take, where money is required to assure safe passage, and that the more disadvantaged migrate through less safe means, reminds the audience of various stories they may have heard about illegal immigration into the United States. One of our leads even remarks on how different it is to look at America from the outside, rather than the inside. There’s a lot of material there, such as there was for District 9, although I’m not convinced that Monsters capitalises on it.

Having a gas time...

The most obvious problem the film has concerns its leads. While all the above stuff is completely fascinating, and builds the picture of a well-imagined world, it doesn’t mean anything if we don’t have an interesting story unfolding in the foreground. There needs to be an emotional hook or appeal. In District 9, it was Marcus’ attempts to reclaim (or maintain) his humanity. In Jurassic Park, it was merely staying alive. It can be big or tiny, it doesn’t matter – as long as it is.

Our two leads here are just bland. They’re cardboard cutouts with a pre-ordained emotional journey, that the script can’t seem to render three-dimensional and the actors don’t really do that much with. We know that the rich girl returning to her fiancé is going to see a lot more of the world and question her engagement; we know that the photographer who makes a living off death is going to engage with the carnage and suffering that he sees. These aren’t characters – they’re bland archetypes. It’s the sort of thing that Cloverfield had to struggle against – a group of fairly indistinct young people following a fairly basic emotional arc, with nothing especially distinguishing about it. The story isn’t really about the monsters, so much as it is about the journey of two characters through a land filled with monsters… and that journey is never really interesting of itself.

Stationed in a trouble zone...

Being honest, I wonder if the decision to film in the bright and beautiful South West of America might have been a miscalculation. The footage looks lovely, but the film takes place primarily during the day, with bright colours saturating every frame. As effective as the sound mixing is, it’s very hard to make an audience afraid of a make-believe monster in broad daylight. There is, after all, a reason that American horror writers like Poe and Lovecraft (and King) favour the dark and dreary surroundings of New England (and not just because they lived there).

Monsters is an incredibly impressive technical achievement, and a valid example of how you don’t need a blockbuster budget to construct an entire world. Unfortunately, one gets the sense that more time might have been spent on the people who inhabit it.

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4 Responses

  1. Across the Internet, the negative responses to Monsters almost always come down to whether or not the reader in question bought the leads or could tolerate them. I found Able and McNairy to be just fine, and in fact I thought they played well off of each other, and more to the point I thought they both had satisfying emotional arcs propelling them forward– if a bit nuanced and quiet–but it often comes down to the actors themselves.

    I don’t think that treating this as a Lovecraft story and going full-darkness would have worked. Usually, Lovecraft’s characters stumble across eldritch horrors while exploring forbidden parts of the world best left undisturbed; that’s not really the case here, since everyone knows about the titular beasts and knows to stay out of the jungle, not because of folklore or tall tales but because if you go into the jungle, past experience proves that Death By Monster will happen. On top of that, the build up from day to night introduces this mounting tension– you know that everyone’s safe during the daytime, but at night everything changes. I thought that added some nice foreboding to the setting, myself.

    • I don’t know, I think that because “Death by Monster” is such a real fear, there was a lot going on in the Infected Zone that might have been interesting to stumble across. We did, in fairness, get a nice taste of it at the campfire scene, but it might have been interesting to see a more active life cycle for the creatures, or a greater idea of life inside the zone. Do the smugglers live there all year around? Are there other people trapped inside the zone who have gone “native”? I think part of the problem is that the movie built too much suspense around the big appearances of the creatures towards the end of the film, so that final moment (while beautiful) doesn’t pay off. It might have been nicer to remind us of the creatures once or twice more over the course of the film, instead of creating the sense the film was building to a climax. Which it was, if you’ll pardon the pun, but not a very fulfilling one.

      I don’t know, I felt the same way I about the recent Doctor Who episodes filmed in Utah. The scenery is impressive, but broad daylight in beautiful (relatively open) surroundings doesn’t build fear – and the surroundings here are mostly open, baring a brief walk through a jungle which has understandably been worn a bit thin by constant bombings and roaming aliens. I didn’t get the sense of a ticking clock, mostly because the transitions seemed to be mostly quick cuts. Nobody was watching the horizon, and we frequently cut to scenes in the dead of night (in which our leads are sleeping, on the boat, for example).

      I don’t know. You make some very good points, but I still have my problems with it.

  2. Whilst the movie may have beautiful scenery its completely pointless and boring I’d honestly have rather watched 3 hours of the news

    • Hi Tanya. That might be a bit harsh, but it’s a fair point – it isn’t the most engaging of films, despite a great concept.

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