Screened in November 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Gareth Edwards. Cast: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able, Mario Zuniga Benavides. Screenplay: Gareth Edwards.
Twitter Capsule: Excitingly odd, ace lensing and production, but ratios are way off. We don't care about this pair, and why're they white?
All credit to Gareth Edwards for managing five tasks when I basically scuttled one. This website review is not what I consider finished, but it's more structured than the five-point discussion I offer on the blog. Prose and ideas overlap substantially, unsurprisingly. Read either or both.

Photo © 2010 Vertigo Films/Magnet Releasing/Protagonist Pictures
Monsters is full of ideas about story and genre, and it brims with chances to showcase Gareth Edwards's talents as director, cinematographer, production designer, and visual effects supervisor. Even so, its ambitions aren't frantic, and it stays impressively clear of arrogant showmanship. Edwards puts his skills to use within a movie that maintains an impressively deadpan atmosphere; one of my favorite things about it is the dispassionate, wearily rationalized way in which everyone on screen has all but habituated themselves to an enormous crisis. The two leads have to make their way through a zone of Mexican jungle that's been quarantined for six years after an alien crash-landing, which the combined efforts of political leaders and military bombers from the U.S. and Mexico have failed to keep under control. From the main characters through their gun-toting escorts to the petty plutocrats who have set up shop in the Mexican seaports—Marco Zuniga Benavides gives one of the season's best two-scene performances as one of the latter—everyone on screen acts as though they once felt awestruck by this proof of intergalactic life, or terrified of these marooned marauders, or ecstatic about the chances to make money from a total boondoggle. But by now, except in a few particularly make-or-break moments, the extremes of wonder, fear, and greed all feel dampened down to a quotidian weariness. Almost offhandedly, Monsters is a great portrait of how quickly resigned we become to almost inconceivable catastrophe, reacting hotly to immediate setbacks (the rawest nerves in the film are exposed by a manipulative sales agent) but seeming all but incapable of responding, even settling on a coherent affect, in relation to big world pictures.

Edwards may be seizing the occasion of his first movie to throw too many calling cards into the air at once, but I'd hire him in a second to light, shoot, or set-design another creature feature, or another low-budget adventure. Heck, I'd trust him to attempt a mid-budget adventure. Shooting on real locations is an invaluable help, but Edwards's camera, flexible at all levels of sunlight and darkness, and fabulously responsive to details and textures, still has a lot to do with how deeply plausible Monsters feels as an occasionally terror-spiked but often quite doldrumy road movie: there's almost as much Lost in Translation here as District 9. Ultimately, though, Edwards's unexpected temptation to dwell on his characters' banal anomies is a major, even an exasperating handicap. At a trim 93 minutes, it's not at all clear what Monsters gains from spending so long introducing the characters, stacking up about six dramatic motives for a journey that only needs one or two, and nudging them into a nascent romance that makes no sense in narrative context, and hardly benefits from Scoot McNairy's decision to stress the itch-inducing self-regard of his cocky, put-upon photographer. Just when you think the movie has worked its way out from beneath its budget-savvy but infertile absorption in the leads and their hangups, the finale of the movie makes a bull-market investment in the non-starter of a character drama. Monsters comes bizarrely close to projecting that the problems of Mexico, and maybe of the larger world, don't amount to a hill of beans in a world where a disenchanted fiancée feels marginally turned on by the kind of whiny manchild who loses your passport when you've just spent $5,000 on the last ride out of town.

Still, even if it keeps ceding valuable screen time to by far its least interesting elements, it's not as though Monsters ever stops seeming like a nervy conglomerate of seemingly disparate impulses. Aspiring to do so much, its proportion of successes is all the more impressive, and it's easy to underestimate just how complete a world Edwards has brought to life, without the expensive, end-of-times accoutrements of something like Children of Men. The film may not have the allegorical gumption or galvanizing lead performance of District 9, or the astounding sound effects and scarifying reveals of the monster-budgeted War of the Worlds, but it also doesn't bungle its entire narrative frame, or get stuck for an endless 20 minutes in Tim Robbins's basement. Edwards badly needed a script rewrite or two—he could easily have downplayed the couple dynamics without needing the bucks for more monster attacks—but at least his blunt dialogue about America's duelling myths of open-door hospitality and border-patrolled invulnerability aren't as offensively opportunistic as Spielberg's 9/11 motifs. I'd like to give Monsters credit for an uncondescending view of the Mexican characters, by contrast to District 9's wild and vicious exoticizing of black-skinned Africans, but then Edwards goes and kills them all off—and why, after all, did Monsters need to be bulit around two white expats? Did Edwards think casting his leads as Mexicans would make the implied immigration resonances (that is, the illegal alien resonances) too overt and problematic? Either way, the blonde heroine looks barely less out of place here than the squidlike beasts. Grade: B–

VOR: (4)   (What is this?)
Squeezing the most out of a budget that filmmakers usually multiply a hundred-fold before stepping anywhere near this genre, Monsters fires a terrific shot across the bow of cowed independent filmmakers. Even when the mélange feels awkward, or the budget forcibly distorts the picture by prompting lots of inexpensive dialogue scenes and skimping on pricier jungle-location footage and F/X bonanzas, the film exhibits ambition and technical proficiency, and swerves often enough from our expectations to keep the experience lively. I just wish I felt genuinely moved.

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