Friday, December 3, 2010


Three things I know about the Human Race as a species:

1.)            The sky is always falling;
2.)            We can survive anything;
3.)            We rarely, if ever, learn from our mistakes.

Those three elements are in constant play. We will always succumb to mass hysteria, a planet-wide Simpsons mob, over the smallest problem, whether caused by man or nature. After all the arm-waving and screaming we’ll overcome said problem. Then we will gleefully repeat the process, for we thrive on strife, drama and argument.

While Hollywood loves to exploit #1 for box office gains, setting drama right in the center of a catastrophic plummeting sky with disaster movies and hybrids of disaster movies like The Day After Tomorrow, Independence Day, The Towering Inferno, Volcano—ad infinitum, the “little guy” working outside the studio system rarely has the budget for the disaster and has to focus on the fallout. While the big boys have gotten in on this act as well—The Road, The Book of Eli—their scripts are generally placed years after the disaster, portraying the human race as hard-scrabbling mutants fighting each other for scraps of food. The “little guy” knows that #2 is a much more believable scenario: after the screaming stops, life goes on. As long as the Wal-Marts continue to operate, everything will be fine. The ground-eye view of a world-changing event, through the eyes of its survivors, is not only easier to depict on a limited budget but is usually more interesting to view human drama after all the explode-y parts are done.

Which was the thought of British writer/director Gareth Edwards and his new movie, the festival-darling Monsters. Six years after an exploratory probe crash landed in Mexico, new “life forms” have begun to sprout up South of the Border—and by “life forms” we mean “the creatures”: hundred-foot-tall squid/jellyfish hybrids that float above the trees and toss vehicles far into the air. Enormous and frightening as these rarely-glimpsed creatures are, they’re also deceptively beautiful and graceful swimming over the “Infected Zone”, as the middle part of Mexico has come to be known, but the devastation they leave behind is obvious: burned out homes, wrecked and rusting overturned vehicles, the debris of vicious battles between the towering creatures and our military’s finest weapons of mass protection. Television news, omnipresent even in the most impoverished areas, blare constant warnings of new threats, of the dangers of the upcoming creature migration, while in more populated areas, signs and graffiti demand that the military stop bombing innocent people and their villages whenever a creature is sighted. In fact, little is said about “random” attacks by the creatures. The “infected zone” seems scarcely infected, save for odd fungus growing the creatures’ eggs, pulsing with color in response to light and outside stimuli. But how this “infects” or even affects civilization is never spelled out. It’s the military that seems to be doing the bulk of the damage. And, of course, exploiting the situation.

Following one siege between monster and military, we are introduced to photo-journalist Andrew Kaulder, who shoots the rotting carcass of a dead creature before inquiring the whereabouts of the closest hospital. His boss’s daughter, Samantha, heir to a publishing empire, has been injured and he’s been conscripted to help her reach the coast, to board a ferry to uninfected America. Irritated at this interruption to his goal of shooting a live creature and selling it to the magazine’s front page, Kaulder grudgingly accompanies Sam to the port. But the ferries from Mexico to the U.S. are few and far between, and passage is expensive. The monopolistic tour guide demands $5,000 for a single ticket, but that does come with a free gas mask to protect travelers from… well, it varies, some say the animals’ toxic breath and/or blood, others blame military chemical weapons. Either way, it’s a good idea to have one on hand.

Kaulder and Sam spend the evening in the village celebrating her departure with booze and dancing before observing a haunting firelight vigil for the seemingly thousands of people killed since the creatures’ arrival. After a series of almost-predictable events, including Kaulder seeking out a new bedmate after Sam spurns his drunken advances, they are robbed of their passports and miss the final ferry—the port is now closed due to migration and mating season. Forced to make their way over ground through the Infected Zone, Sam and Kaulder are placed in the hands of increasingly dangerous and seedy guides, including an armed gang of soldiers of fortune, all too aware that the danger could come from above them in the trees, beneath the water below the boats or at the hands of their all-too human opportunists.

Critically lauded for its invention in the face of a miniscule budget, Monsters is a simple little story as frustrating as it is suspenseful. Director Edwards’ motives are pure, wanting only to depict the resilience of the human spirit, while painting unsubtle metaphors—intentional or not—for everything from illegal immigration—the aliens have settled in Central Mexico but are making their way north towards “the Wall”—to our occupation of Afganistan. With a budget of less than $500,000, Edwards and his tiny crew shot the film over the course of a few weeks, often shooting in locations without permission. After principal photography wrapped, Edwards set out to generate the CGI creatures and wreckage with store-bought software, so the fact that the aliens are relegated to extended cameos can be not only understood but forgiven, particularly given how gorgeously-conceived and rendered the animals are: all floating, seeking tentacles and their internal bodies communicating with each other in flashes of brilliant colored light. The film’s climax—where virtually nothing happens but our observing the creatures up close for the first time right alongside the leads—is nothing short of breathtaking.

But the frustrating part lies squarely on the shoulders of the two leads. Due to the constraints of the budget and schedule, Edwards left story and dialogue largely up to his actors, in particular Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, which results in very little. Literally given nothing to do but travel, McNairy bitches and whines while the injured Able broods about a dissolving engagement and a damaged relationship with her father. The pair never really converse but make uncomfortable small talk throughout their journey—which is not only fine and acceptable and natural at the beginning, but becomes agonizing to sit through after the forty-five minute mark. Our leads have nothing to say and their model-frozen features convey even less. Their inevitable romance seems born out of boredom than shared adventure. While their journey would be fraught with danger even without the presence of the creatures, the fact that these enormous but nearly-silent attackers could be lurking camouflaged anywhere around them just adds to the tension parfait. And it’s been made apparent that even after six years, little attempt to understand the creatures has been made. They’re things for soldiers to fight or civilians to work around. “This happens every year,” a driver says, indicating the impending migration. “You just get used to it.”

Meanwhile, fully aware of their situation, the best improv our actors can conjure are meaningless and often head-slapping queries. A distant trumpeting sound, simultaneously ominous and beautiful, sending a tremor through the trees. Kaulder: “What is that? Seriously, what’s that sound?” When leaving one boat journey for the next leg of their trip, meeting their armed escorts who appear to have just dropped Indiana Jones off with the Hovitos, Kaulder: “Why do they have guns? Seriously, what do they need guns for?” Because, apparently, it’s easy to forget that 100-foot squids are lurking all around you. Meanwhile, Sam offers little input, preferring to smile enigmatically, sometimes grimly, always stoically, at the doom-filled situation. Upon seeing “The Wall” for the first time, constructed along the boarder—an awesomely-visualized shot from the steps of an Aztec temple—towering above both countries like a Republican’s greatest dream, Sam: “It’s like the eighth wonder of the world. Or something.”

Walking through an enormous burned-out hole in the side of the wall and encountering hastily-constructed signs pointing towards Quarantine, devastation around them with nary a soul to encounter, Kaulder: “What happened? Where is everybody?”

The banal discussion adds nothing to the already-long journey, every bit as exhausting for the viewer as the travelers, with the giant squids omnipresent Col. Kurtzes, and the actors do little to make their characters interesting enough to care about. Plucked from a mumblecore film, McNairy and Able are bland everymen, doing the fascinating premise a severe disservice. Edwards could have taken a page from Jacques Tati and kept the film dialogue-free and our sympathies would have undoubtedly increased. With Kaulder and Sam as our focal points, Monsters is like listening to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as read by Fran Drescher, wonderful and grating at the same time.

Unfortunately, its U.S. distributor Magnet Releasing seems to have found the attitude of our laconic leads to be the most enticing part of the film, since they dumped it onto a handful of screens with only a minimum of boring promotion—the poster’s tagline is “Beware” as if the studio itself wants the audience to stay away. If it weren’t for the strong word-of-mouth from those who caught it at South By Southwest, I don’t think I personally would be aware of it. 

If your mind’s eye is strong enough to paint the two out and focus merely on the passage from point to point, you’ll find Monsters to be quite the enjoyable experience. Far from the “worst, most boring movie ever”, as decreed by the mouthbreathers on the IMDb, Monsters is a contemplative, smart little science fiction movie because of what it shows and never tells. Since little is known or learned about the creatures, we’re not let in on anything either, so our wonder remains from beginning to (obvious) end. But we get majestic scenery along the way and are left wondering, “then what?” by the end—and in this case, it’s not such a bad thing.

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