Monsters: Film Review

Directed by: Gareth Edwards, Runtime: 94 minutes
Grade: B+

Gareth Edwards' Monsters knows exactly what kind of film it wants to be, and I applaud the director for taking the risk in bringing it to life. After all, his film does little justice to the title by containing only a handful of sequences featuring actual octopus-looking monsters, and several of them won't instill much in the way of dread. But that's not the kind of movie Edwards aims for; instead, this intimately-shot indie uses the presence of beings that humanity doesn't understand as a pervasive backbone for allegory-laced suspense, focusing instead on the relationship between a photojournalist and a wealthy daddy's girl as they cope under neo-apocalyptic circumstances -- and with their individual woes. Monsters is neither as aggressive nor as symbolically agile as it could be, but the mood crafted within its restrained suspense builds it into a distinctive, genre-defiant experience that's not easily forgotten.

Edwards sketches out a dystopian universe that resembles something of a "contained" apocalypse, where monsters spread throughout Mexico after a NASA probe crash-landed in the area. The events created a quarantined "infected zone" featuring large tentacle-laden organisms that, routinely, seem to attack in highly-televised incidents once or twice throughout the year, while also causing the citizens to cautiously wear gas masks when -- if --passing through the area. The actual story at-hand focuses on a young woman, Samantha (Whitney Able), who's injured in Mexico and needs escort back to the United States. Muck-scraping photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) reluctantly agrees to help, since her father holds power over a publication that Andrew regularly contributes to, which puts the wheeling-and-dealing in motion as they arrange transport across the infected zone to the United States border.

There's an apparent fork in the road within Monsters, a direction Gareth Edwards could've gone under different circumstances. Instead of blitzing through character establishment to get to beasts ripping victims in half and stomping through buildings, he instead methodically takes his time in allowing Andrew and Sam to develop a relationship. Lush, appealing cinematography shot by Edwards himself replaces any form of erratic high-activity movement as it captures both in-tact areas and those hammered with dilapidation, while a pulsating score from Jon Hopkins (The Lovely Bones) backdrops the pair's movement through outlying villages and cities. It paints an image of pseudo-normalcy, of containing the infected zone within the stunning location, with the danger of monsters only looming in the distance. Evidences of their presence can only be seen by way of crashed planes, rusted tanks, and eye-catching signs illustrating the zone's nearness scattered along the road, as well a television broadcasts.

Edwards instead creates a suspenseful journey film with Monsters that shows how two people with rocky pasts and equally-trying presents grow closer through tough circumstances in a post-"event" climate, while also turning a critical eye to the world's comprehension of threats -- all for a reported $500k. Conversations over why Andrew takes photographs of the monster attacks (and why these photographs are valuable) and scenes capturing people in mourning over related deaths replace biological explanations or other beleaguered reasoning as to "why" it all happens, instead focusing on the grandness of the monsters' presence and the way it affects humanity. That's not to say that Edwards doesn't have an eye for tension; ignoring actual contact with monsters as Sam and Andrew travel through waterways and foliage-dominated forests actually heightens their presence once they do arrive.

I wouldn't recommend waiting for them to appear, though. Edwards uses monsters as a periphery device, only dropping them into his story when they're absolutely needed. Agitated sounds growl and stomp in the distance, but it's only to heighten the immediacy of getting Andrew and Sam safely to their destination. In that, Monsters shares more in common with Harrison's Flowers and It Happened One Night instead of bombastic monster blockbusters; the idea of a threat looms in the distance, but it's used to bolster the intensity between individuals and their scramble to a specific location. With lesser actors and a less-aware script, the director's focus could've crumbled into its modest aims, but his stalwart two-actor setup shape its science-fiction scaffolding into an effectively unique drama-driven experiment. It's low on action bumps, but it's also captivating in its ability to slipstream along the "infected" area with ever-present human tension at its back.

But there's a lot going on to compliment the lack of persistent action, though it focuses on thematic beats instead of visceral ones. Monsters leaves one pondering alien life forms instead of relishing in their destruction, while taking a figurative peek at humanity's need to suppress what it doesn't understand. Edwards scatters obvious figurative bursts throughout Andrew and Sam's journey that could (easily) tie into a critique on illegal immigration, but the comparison's a bit ham-fisted politically to be taken on an effectual level. It does tap into the climate, however, to create a consistent twinge of suspense in their travels through the monster-laden zone, while also etching out memorable images of destruction that remind one of the "war on terror". And Edwards effectively juggles it all on an extremely low budget, serving as the central nervous system as he builds towards a climax that's breathtaking in both physical and, most importantly, in poignant scope.

For the full Blu-ray review, head over to [Click Here]


David Blakeslee said...

Nice write-up, you did a good job conveying the provocative aspects of what Edwards was doing. Can I just challenge the missed opportunity of titling the film something as bland and generic as "Monsters"? I mean, come on, give it a little more thought and creative twist, will ya? Are we headed to a future of films titled "Space Ships", "War", "Romance" (yeah, I know Breillat did that one already), "Crime", etc? I just think a lo-budg indie flick needs to dig deeper to get noticed. I wouldn't go see a movie named "Monsters" without some kind of strong nudge from someone I really respect, because I have nothing to lean on to compel my interest from the get-go.

Thomas Spurlin said...

Interestingly, "Monsters" wasn't the original title. If memory serves correctly from the commentary on the Blu-ray, it was originally running under the title "Far From Home" before it was changed later on. Not much better, but it has a little more allure and less carrot-leading bluntness than the one they went with.

(Thanks for reading!)

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