I just saw Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. I had been wanting to see it since I first saw the trailers posted online. It looked like it might be really good. In order to explain how I felt about the movie, we need to take a little journey far afield. Not to worry, this will all make sense in the end – I hope.
In college I took a class in public speaking. Now, the practical minded among you probably imagine a class room full of college kids making speeches for the entire semester; while those of you with college experience might imagine a class room full of college kids, bored by TA standing at the head of the class explaining the theoretical underpinnings of communication – which most students will forget five minutes after the semester is over, if it even takes them that long. If you are in the later group, you have perfectly visualized a bit of my college experience.
Though boring, I did manage to pick up a few things from the class; for example, in any human communication there is a sender and a receiver, that might seem like a big “Well, Duh!,” but wait, there is more. This is the part that will fry your brain; the actual full message and intent of the sender will be never fully received and understood. I know! You’re probably thinking, ”OMG! That such a pile of moose poops!” It’s true. Let me give you a simple model to demonstrate: You and I are standing in a room. You want to tell me that somebody we both know is dead. You say, “He’s dead, Jim.” That seems pretty cut and dried, yes? No. There is a dog barking outside and all I heard was, “He’s da gin.” Or I hear you, and I start laughing because I think you are making a Star Trek reference, partly because my name isn’t Jim. Or I hear you and think that you are telling me his name is Dead Jim. Or perhaps I don’t speak English and what you said has no meaning at all. Between what you intended and what I hear are all sorts of variables, some of which are environmental (the barking dog), some are based on personal experiences (my assumption that you are kidding instead of serious), some are cultural (I don’t speak English) and some variables could be based on simple confusion, from lack of context or that your receiver is just plain stupid (He’s Dead Jim).
Okay, let’s get back to Monsters. A NASA probe has found extraterrestrial life in our solar system. The movie doesn’t say where, which is for the best, I mean how many times have you rolled your eyes at the idea if spacemen from the Moon or even Mars and Venus. Anyway, this probe grabs some samples of the alien life and hooks it back to Earth, where it crashes in northern Mexico, sending alien spores and whatnot all over the place. We fast forward six years. A vast region of northern Mexico has been cordoned off to isolate the alien beasties who now freely roam between the seas in their own little version of Manifest Destiny (Monsterfest Destiny?), controlling all of northern Mexico, from the Pacific coast to the Gulf of Mexico. It seems that these monsters have a migratory path that periodically sends them outside the infected zone and into populated areas.
Enter Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photographer who has been documenting the damage in areas where the Mexican Army and the monsters have clashed recently. He has arrived in San Jose just ahead of an expected monster incursion and is hoping to get a Pulitzer for the photos he plans to shoot. Before Kaulder can get on with his evil plans, his editor sends him on a mission to find twenty-something Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), who is vacationing in the area and may be among the wounded from the last attack. Samantha is the daughter of Dick Wynden (I don’t remember his first name, so I’m just gonna call him Dick). Dick is the head of company that employs Kaulder, so he has no real choice. Once he finds Samantha he’s charged with bringing her back to the United States. Kaulder is pissed off, thinking the babysitting job he’s been given is going to prevent him from getting in on photographing the hot monster action, which both you and I know is going to be far from the case, otherwise it would be a very short movie. Let the adventure begin!
I’m a very jaded person. I’ve traveled a bit and I’ve worked in law enforcement. The bulk of Monsters is about these two Americans, one carrying expensive camera equipment and the other a cute little blonde woman, trying to pick their way through what amounts to a war zone, and dealing with some rather sketchy characters along the way. I’m not really focusing on the “monsters” because I’m waiting for him to get robbed and murdered and for her to get raped and murdered. Something like that happened to a college friend of mine. She was working as a Peace Corps volunteer in South America. She was an independent, pretty and an intelligent young woman. She’s just the sort of person a bunch of down trodden macho shit-heads, who run roughshod in their little out of the way village, are going to resent. I’m not sure if writer/director Gareth Edwards intended for that sort of tense subtext to be part of his movie or not. If Edwards did intend the threat of murder and rape to be part of the underlying tension, it was a bad idea because it totally distracted me from the rest of the movie. I doubt that Edwards was thinking that a crime subtext would seep into his monster story, which again, gets back to what I was saying about communication theory. There is no way he could anticipate how my personal experience effect my viewing of his movie. Samantha doesn’t get raped, so you can relax and enjoy the monster mayhem.
So, how are the monsters in Monsters? Solid. Most of the time they are shown at a distance (they’re huge) or at night. Edwards never gives us a full close-up daylight reveal, but shows them in quick flashes, much like Matt Reeves did in Cloverfield until the end. Basically, the monsters look a bit like giant squid, only much bigger and they are able to walk on land as well as hide in the water.
The acting is solid. Edwards didn’t have the money to hire a big cast, so most everyone in the film is just some regular person, more or less playing themselves and ad-libbing their own lines. The interaction doesn’t get noticeably awkward because many of the people our heroes meet only speak English as a second language. Any breaking of the fourth wall was totally wallpapered over in my mind by the documentary feel of the movie. The two stars carry the film tolerably well. When he speaks off camera, I swear Scoot McNairy sounds just like David Duchovny. Whitney Able is as cute as a button, sort of like Meg Ryan only less vapid.
Monsters, like many recent low budget movies, is filmed in a documentary cinéma vérité style. Doing a movie this way presents the filmmaker with a dilemma: namely, who is holding the camera and why doesn’t he or she just drop it and head for the hills? Filmmaker Gareth Edwards does something kind of ballsy here and just ignores the problem, asking you, in effect, to believe that the camera is just sort of following the characters around – that worked for me. Gareth Edwards’ background is in documentary film making, so getting the feel of reality into Monsters was no sweat for him to pull off. He has, more or less, brought the found footage film full circle (alliteration!).
Trying to communicate a sense of horror is a tricky thing and when it’s done right, we, in the horror community, shower that filmmaker or writer with praise and money. Think I’m wrong? Go to one of these fan conventions and check out the big line of people who are willing to fork over seventy-five dollars just to shake hands with John Carpenter and tell him that he’s a genius. With Monsters, Gareth Edwards has made a film that looks like a big budget movie on a relative shoestring – much like John Carpenter. Perhaps, one day, people will pay money to shake Gareth Edwards’ hand and tell him that he’s a genius too.
The WTF moment of the film: The part where Kaulder leaves his hotel room. The moment he started out the door I knew what was going to happen next, but that is probably due to my OCD laden nightmares. You’ll see what I’m talking about.