Thursday, February 24, 2011

REVIEW: Monsters

Director: Gareth Edwards
Year 2010

Monsters tells the intimate story of two ordinary strangers who are suddenly thrust together into an extraordinary situation, helping them to both grow as individuals and at the same time bring them closer to each other. Within the film, the world has been cast into a dreamlike stupor after a NASA satellite crashes into the region between the United States and Mexico, bringing with it an alien entity that since its arrival seven years ago, has began consuming the surrounding crash site and producing some larger then life creatures. The main plight of our main characters is to travel from Mexico to the United States, by passing through the quarantine zone, which is now the territory of these walking megalithic beasts. The interesting turn of this film is that the focus is much less on the alien creatures and more in tuned to what the characters are going through, both in the journey and in their personal lives. It's a bold maneuver, but one that is pulled off with a delicate and ever watchful eye, as Edwards compliments the visuals in a near picture perfect companion to the characters life changing journey. 

What do you mean I don't have monster insurance!

The film really is an unexpected treat, giving us a romantically charged monster flick that throws the conventional wisdom of the genre out the window and relies heavily on a plethora of unorthodox inspirations to morph the film into something else entirely. It's a unique beast that harkens back to a large number of films and subsequent genres, but never falters too far from its creature feature origins. In this approach, Monsters becomes a heartfelt and mesmerizing film. It's one part independent romance and one part monster flick and the balance between the two opposing themes never seems to tip in either favor or outshine the other.  The balance is perfect and most of that can be credited to the overall atmosphere of the piece as a whole. Edwards creates a wondrous world that feels real and lived in and in this approach has made an excellent playground in which to set this balancing act of romantic drama and science fiction.

Don't worry. You'll eventually get to see some monsters.

If the ambitious nature of the film wasn't enough, we're also given the astounding appreciation that Edwards was able to create such a rich and lavish world with just a small amount of resources at his disposal. Monsters sets the gold standard on what can be accomplished in the independent circuit if you have the skill and ingenuity to back it up. You would be hard pressed to realize that this film wasn't a big budget Hollywood movie if you weren't privy to the history of the production. Everything in the film seems so grand and larger then life and the overall feeling of the film screams epic proportions, but it's daunting to realize that most of the effects were created on his personal laptop and the majority of the movie was shot guerilla style as they traveled all over Mexico. Gareth Edwards' first feature film is really something to behold and you will literally be mind-struck over the wonders that he was able to cultivate onto the screen for a mere $15,000.

The monsters didn't start the fire. It was always burning since the world was turning.

The main aspect of this film, the thing that holds together the entire concept of Monsters, is the world's lore. The painstaking efforts that went into making this world believable and tangible is striking to witness and just plain beautiful to behold. There is a constant reminder of the dangers that inhabit this world and Edwards does an amazing job in displaying that numerous times throughout the film, from showing us newscasts of the latest monster attacks, to the large quarantine maps that frequently show up on their journey, to the constant and contemplative shots of the devastation that the monsters have inflicted on the land, that we really get a sense of the threat and how truly real it is for these people. It's a world unlike we've ever known, but through the filmmaker's skillful ability to immerse the audience in this foreboding imagery, we begin to believe in the validity of the situation at hand and take it at face value to be fact within the confines of this story.

Damn these mall maps! Where's the Build-A-Bear?

With the world's lore firmly embedded within the story, Edwards is able to branch off in varying inspirational paths and combine a good many random ideas to add to the overall recipe that is Monsters. This technique allows him to delve into a highly engaging dramatic and intimate story-line that relies less on the action and overall over the top nature of normal monster films, and instead focus on what makes these characters tick. Now I wouldn't say that this film gives an overly intricate look into their inner souls, but the simplistic and peaceful nature that Edwards allows to come through in the film is quiet in its execution and passive in nature.

We're guided along with them on their journey and are given quick and subtle insights into their lives and who they are outside of this crazy alien infested world. Nothing is slammed over the audiences head as you get to know the characters. The information is given gradually, much like how you'd get to know a person in real life, by small exposition through casual conversation. It's a liberating feeling to experience the same understandings that the characters in the film are realizing for the first time and to gently move with them on that mental trek. It's a delicate approach to the normally heavy handed nature of this kind of genre, where we are usually given the rundown on each character's profession, love interest, favorite food, and stereotypical typecasted appearance in the first few minutes of introduction. That staple of the blockbuster monster film is gladly left by the wayside, replaced by a more mature and believable approach to the old 'getting to know you' routine.

Jesus bus. The only way to travel.

These subtle tweaks can also be found throughout the film when glossing over the visuals of Monsters. I don't know about you, but I can't remember when a monster flick has looked this beautiful. I'm not talking about sleek imagery and top of the line effects. I'm talking about beautiful in a more reflective and metaphorical sense. That kind of imagery that talks to the soul of the characters so they don't need to say much at all to get their mood across. Edwards allows for the visuals to paint most of what the two main characters are thinking or experiencing. There are many moments in this film that are quite uneventful in the traditional sense, in where there is no substantial dialogue to be heard, only the powerful observation of the characters surroundings and the contemplative combination of the composed frame and its accompanied musical cues. It's odd to see these kind of high concept and artistically infused elements, that are usually found in an arthouse film, to be taking up much of the frame of a monster flick, but I think the unexpectedness of it all makes the film that much stronger and meaningful.

Take my breathe away.

In essence, the film is more about the experience of the characters then it is about the monsters, which is why I think many people seem misled. Make no mistake about it though, you feel the presence of these monsters the entire runtime of the film. Every moment is cautiously contemplating where they are and anticipating their arrival in miraculous wonder or brutal violent beastly nature. That impending doom of the first interaction with these otherworldly beasts lies heavy on the narrative and builds that uneasy feeling that so injects this film with a sense of energy and life.

The amount of time that these monsters were on screen was enough for this viewer and the fact that after seeing them, we still have no idea what the hell they really are. In truth we don't need to know what they are because the fact of the matter is, they are a background element to the main focal point of the film. It's the two main characters that are the stars of the piece, as we watch them come to terms with their personal lives and each other. The monsters are just a bonus and the unknowing qualities of these beasts is icing on the already delicious cake.

Welcome to Jurassic Park!

It may be frustrating for those that came into the film thinking monsters, explosions, and chaos oh my, but the mystery behind their origins and how they became these large ominous beings only adds to the intrigue of their existence. The fact that they are portrayed so subtly in the film helps to keep that mystery intact. We're given small glances into their appearance, but never languish long enough to get our fill. Every instance where it seems like we might get our money shot, we are slowly shrouded back into the mystery. It's a tease that propels us onward and combining that with the overall journey of our main characters as they trudge through the quarantined zone in order to return home, makes for one hell of a compelling story and one that moves us along in anticipation of what's next. A good story always leaves you wanting more and Edwards has concocted a hell of a story with Monsters.

If only I could see past this hair in my face.

Mystery aside, another element that adds to the overall feel of the film is the manner in which Edwards and company decided to approach the production of the movie. By going the guerilla filmmaker route, they've added another and wholly important layer to the film, one that grounds the film in reality and helps establish the believability of the monster infested world. That on the fly feeling of the production, compliments the backpack journey that the main characters are taking, bringing us along through all of their trials and tribulations. It is in almost a road-trip kind of sense where we go from location to location experiencing the things they are experiencing, getting our hands dirty right along side them. Just like the film in general, it is an intimate approach to filmmaking and one that highly benefits the story in bringing about a sense of truth and substance. All of these elements help to raise up this film and make it appear more expensive then it really is while at the same time providing a cohesive look that gels perfectly across the board on all fronts.

Someone's got to clean this shit up.

Lastly, the fact that the film is headlined by two unknown actors, Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, only helps in differentiating this film from anything we've ever seen before. The epic scale of this piece seems destined for a Hollywood caliber pair of actors to equal its grandeur, but luckily we're given a more down to earth and relatable couple that only help to showcase the fact that this film is in a world of its own. The unfamiliarity of it all allows for the audience to be swept up in it and I think if there was a more known and established actor in the main two roles, then it would have taken away from the overall raw nature of the film. Edwards has done such a tremendous job with the entire look and feel of the film, that it really is hard to imagine anyone else other then McNairy and Able, playing the roles of the title characters. They do a commendable job in bringing their characters to life and allowing us into their world.

What the world needs now, is love, sweet love.

Monsters is a film that seems to do everything right, from its imaginative plot to its most intricate and intimate moments. We're given a mature and respectable film that is approached in such an interesting and unorthodox way, that it really does breath life into the various genres that it tackles. Whether you love romantic dramas of the independent persuasion or have an insatiable appetite for large overgrown creatures that go bump in the night, I think this film has something for everyone to enjoy. Just don't go into this film thinking you're going to be seeing the next big budget action film. This movie has a quiet and contemplative nature to it, one that revels in the silent moments of anticipation and wonders in the amazing locals that grace this independent gems every loving frame. Gareth Edwards has brought a quality that I thought I'd never see in a monster film, heart. I highly recommend this film to anyone who is interested to see how far an independent production can go when put in capable hands and expert imaginations. A definite must for any genre fan with an arthouse soul.

5 stars out of 5     A Refreshing & Intimate Monster Movie

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