Wednesday, October 16, 2013


"Right on the other side of that wall is America, so we're very close."
-Andrew Kaulder-
"Do you think the wall will keep the creatures out of America?"
-Samantha Wynden-

Of course, if we weren't talking about keeping the actual alien invaders out of America we might be talking about keeping the illegal aliens out of the country with that proposed wall.  So the answer to Samantha's question is no, and Edwards is clearly referring to human beings, but the enforcement of law wouldn't hurt.  Crossing the border and other political undercurrents are clearly in focus for Gareth Edwards' Monsters (2010). All of it is handled with a mostly subtle touch allowing the art, the visuals and the overall journey experience speak to viewers.  We've been enjoying a kind of epic run on kaiju films and it continues fittingly with Monsters (kaiju).

Sign of the times.

When British-based Monsters arrived in cinemas it was one of those films I admired from afar, cautiously sizing it up from a safe distance like a fearful civilian watching a city trampled by Godzilla.  It opened to reasonably good reviews, but, generally speaking, I wasn't sold on it.  My expectations were probably initially higher, much as they were for Pacific Rim (2013).  But like that latter film, those expectations waned.  Pacific Rim proved to be a massive spectacle of a treat - good, old-fashioned sci-fi adventure.  Pacific Rim seemed to balance the big and bold just right.  It was surprising even to me.   I've never been particularly big or drawn to loud, obnoxious, over-the-top action and science fiction films.  The Transformers continues to disappoint.  Pacific Rim managed to remain intelligent enough to take "Big, Dumb Fun," as called it, to the extraordinary next level and played logically within its imagined universe.  Pacific Rim created "Monstrously Entertaining Escapism."

So you would think a seemingly more subdued, quieter, smaller monster movie like Monsters would draw me out of hiding.  If Pacific Rim offered a successful, epic, colorful vision from director Guillermo del Toro, how does director Gareth Edwards, the future visionary behind Godzilla (2014) fare?  It was important for me to find out.

The writing was on the wall.  I had to see Monsters. With Monsters: Dark Continent (2014) and, ironically, director of Monsters Gareth Edwards slated to helm the massive Godzilla (2014) re-launch for next summer, I had to experience for myself what the director would have to offer a Godzilla reboot and what one might expect from the man behind Monsters especially if he was handling the biggest monster of them all and arguably the greatest science fiction character of all-time.  I was intrigued more than ever and really wanted to give Monsters a proper look.

Monsters clearly had the pioneering, indie spirit of Neil Blomkamp's South African-based District 9 (2009) and even shined next to the overblown Avatar (2009) that same year.  District 9 became the must see science fiction film of the year and it was made on a $30 million dollar shoestring.  Avatar cost $237 million and it looked all of that, but the gritty little District 9 was a true sci-fi fan's dream picture.  The Blomkamp picture made nearly 211 million dollars at the box office.  Could and would the equally ambitious Monsters enjoy a similar fate?

Well, probably not, and it didn't, but Monsters did garner significant critical attention and put many on notice that Edwards was someone to watch.

On a budget of just $500,000 dollars (are you effing kidding me!?) Monsters turned a profit and wowed this Sci-Fi Fanatic?  Edwards delivered $4 million to the box office, but is Monsters worth the same kind of praise District 9 was afforded?  Would it look as big and bold as that Blomkamp classic?  Is that even fair?  In economic terms, comparing Monsters to District 9 is a bit like comparing District 9 to Transformers.  So that comparison isn't entirely fair, but the spirit of that comparison is indeed true.  Sometimes the smaller these films get the more impressive they become. You simply cannot put a price tag on the passion of an idea and the vision of a dream.  Films like District 9, Bong Joon-ho's The Host (2006; $11 million budget) and Monsters continually bear that belief out.  What could Monsters have possibly offered to capture the attention of major studios and give him the shot required to land Edwards a gig helming a new film starring one of the greatest monsters to ever live?  It's time to knock down some buildings and investigate Edwards' INFECTED ZONE.

Almost immediately one senses an almost sister soldier moment with the people of Japan as the affected areas of Central America and Mexico essentially live under the threat of monsters.

The Monsters aesthetic presents a visually stunning film when considering the film's pint-sized budget limitations.  Monsters is a gritty, dirty, lived-in-world thanks to location shooting.  I'm not sure what that says about the locations?  There's nothing Hollywood about it and yet it is a strikingly beautiful picture.  Edwards handled all of the cinematographic responsibilities. How did the stunning cinematography and film stock alone not eat up Edwards' budget?  What about the script?  Oh, Edwards again. Monsters is an on the ground guerrilla film if ever there was one.

The film is a simple idea but essentially fleshed out in mood and atmosphere.  There are found footage-styled moments caught with the camera like Cloverfield, but Monsters thankfully never overextends the approach.  It is used sparingly and with a variety of color tones.

To further amplify the affect of the infected zone, the result of a NASA crash that collected alien samples, music, is applied both diegetically (drawn from an on screen source like a radio) from Spanish-based radio as well as non-diegetically through score-based applications and placed over the entirety of a scene to impact mood by the subtle approach of composer Jon Hopkins.  However employed Edwards has self-crafted impressively.  It's nothing short of a miracle in film making.

The focus of the film is around a male photographer and a beautiful blonde female, played by Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able respectively (both married in real life).  The two actors are clearly working at a reduced salary or potentially as a result of dark secrets of which Edwards used as a bargaining tool. That's a joke.

Initially before seeing the film, I had been concerned about a lack of actual monsters in a film called Monsters.  It's a fear I don't share for Edwards' upcoming Godzilla.  If I see the big guy for a third of the film - classic Toho style and Showa era style- then I'll be more than pleased.  What struck me as I watched the film was how I simply embraced the mood of Edwards' picture and the character journey.  The monsters were indeed secondary.  Hopkins' score drew me into the flight of its two characters and I began to forget about the monsters.  This is precisely the kind of monster drama you want from a director.  Character-based science fiction wins the day every time and Monsters proved to me that Edwards understood, regardless of budgetary restraints, that he wanted his picture to feel real, flesh and blood with characters in a genuine crisis.  This wasn't going to be a comic book approach with transforming trucks or critters.  The lives of people within an infected zone were indeed very much at stake and Edwards creates that atmosphere to brilliant effect.

As the picture progresses, like District 9, Monsters delivers an ever so subtle political message that never preaches.  While I don't always agree with these messages I enjoy being challenged to consider the substance of these ideas.  Please don't force feed this animal.  As Andrew Kaulder (McNairy) and Samantha Wynden (Able) traverse the landscape of Central America and Mexico's infected area making their way to the US border, Monsters paints a portrait of a people attempting to escape their own impoverished fates looking for passage to America.  Who can't relate to that?

Kaulder shakes hands and Wynden speaks Spanish with the kindly locals (and some not so kindly as their ferry tickets and passports are stolen) they meet on their efforts to make their way to freedom and out of the Infected Zone.  In effect, Edwards puts a face on these immigrants as survivors.  He humanizes a political conundrum. Is the Infected Zone analogous to passage through Mexico to reach the freedom of the states?  Are these people attempting to deal with the monsters within their own borders - drugs, corrupt government, etc...? Monsters certainly poses these real political and cultural realities without telling us how we should feel.  Images across their landscape suggest the politics of Monsters is about immigration including a monster-sized border fence.  Are those who would halt such an effort the actual monsters?  Edwards wonders. Application for citizenship is a law and requirement of sovereign nations.  Period.  But the respect of national sovereignty and the rule of law is certainly not a popular value today.  Sadly, laws are written and broken and today new laws are written to replace already penned and unenforced ones so that one day those laws too can be broken.  Excuses and permissive behavior override good, sound judgment in today's America.  Without proper laws, well, we will be another country.  So the monsters are indeed amongst us. Monsters offers plenty for reflection and the picture should be applauded on that level too.  As suggested, this film might have been better titled simply Aliens, if it weren't for strong association and identification with James Cameron's own landmark film.

Only when the characters push the envelope with statements like "It's different looking at America from the outside-in.  ... when you get home it's so easy to forget all this.  I mean tomorrow we'll be back to our... lives, in our perfect suburban homes." Come on. That's called taking me out of the moment. What is unsaid is far more powerful than these trite statements.  America is a big place and not everyone lives like that even in America.  Monsters is far more effective in making statements when it says nothing at all and works strictly through visuals, images and music. Images and symbols sometimes suggest a tattered American dream whether its a frayed American flag, giant walls or Infected Zone signs and gas masks that dart the landscape just beyond America's borders.  These are certainly images with real power.  I can even get behind this idea, but it's the how we got there we might disagree.

(SPOILER) In one of the film's most existential moments I was asked to question if Edwards played the moment correctly.  The photographer happens upon a dead child and he is left with a decision to either photograph the child or not.  Photographing the dead is indeed economically rewarding.  At first, I felt the moment seemed disingenuous, but after some consideration, with all that has transpired, wondered to myself that in fact I might make the same decision if placed within the same circumstances.  Ultimately one begins to ponder the meaning of existence at a certain point and the reality of circumstances starts to dictate what matters and doesn't matter.  It becomes that simple.  Edwards captures the sincerity of that moment and the value of life no matter our place in the world.  Still, photographers need to live to and make not just a living but document the horrors of war no matter how difficult the circumstances.  We certainly cannot judge them as human beings on the terms of their mission. (END SPOILER)

As far as political messages go, our understanding is that we can't keep the aliens out or at bay, not by a wall, not by guns.  Of course, we already knew that. Is Edwards telling us we shouldn't bother having borders at all? Because the message is hey, the monsters or illegal aliens are here to stay, they're mating and their beautiful.  It is certainly one message in the film.

But as sheer monster movie escapism Monsters is a quiet, slow burn.  This is no Pacific Rim, but you knew that.  The notable monster effects are impressive if minimal.  When the translucent, Abyss-like creatures egg sacks flicker on the tree or a tentacle peers up over a crashed jet fighter in the water it is almost magically captured thanks to Edwards approach.  There's an almost hypnotic, hot, dream-like quality to the picture.  The evidence that Edwards will do something special with Godzilla is indeed in evidence and with a more substantial budget I do expect bigger things to come.  How on God's green Earth Edwards was able to make this picture on his budget is nothing short of jaw-dropping.  Based on the evidence here, Edwards is really the perfect choice for the film.  And Ishiro Honda never shied away from political statements when helming his own interpretations of the great lizard. Edwards will likely come up with something special.

The Austin Chronicle called Monsters "The best monster movie of the millennium."  That praise may be a bit excessive to be fair. called it "a remarkable achievement" as a more than average alien invasion picture and that praise is much more credible.  I was truly impressed with the cinematography. Even when a lot really isn't happening and the picture takes in quiet moments, the picture is beautiful.  It's astounding what was captured on film and how the computer effects are applied to open it up to epic effect.  They are seamless within the story, once again, thanks to Edwards own talents.

The final third of the film has a few gripping The Mist-like moments in horror tone and I adored The Mist (2007; $18 million budget).  The monsters are creepy and effectively glimpsed and easily large enough to qualify for Japan's fantastical kaiju eiga category, once again, shining a spotlight on Edwards as the man who could bring Godzilla out of the wilderness and back to prominence properly and in the spirit of the Japanese classics.

Despite an exciting final ten minutes of the film there's not enough substantial thrills for me to vehemently get behind Monsters.  It doesn't have the same kind of excitement that moved District 9 along.  I suppose therein lies the different in $29.5 million dollars.  But what Edwards achieved in the span of 94 minutes is simply awesome on its own merit.  There are some breathtaking moments.  I don't want to discount Monsters as insubstantial or as a lengthy trailer to what Edwards could bring to a much larger budget, but I do suspect he can bring it based on the evidence here.

Monsters is a rather solid politically-infused morality play with a sprinkling of sizable effects.  A more action-based and robust Monsters thriller might play like Battle: Los Angeles (2011) or Steven Spielberg's War Of The Worlds (2005), which is why Monsters isn't those films.  Monsters realizes its limitations and Edwards approaches his alien invasion as one that has already happened.  They are here.  They live amongst us like John Carpenter's They Live (1988), another low budget gem at $3 million.  But on a dime, Monsters is a gem of indie cinema invention and a real taster of Edwards potential especially given his ability to flesh out caring for a character in 90 minutes. Edwards also handles the political tone of his film mostly effectively.  His creatures are also created with subtlety but to awesome effect.  Most importantly the growth of his two principal characters culminates in a rather believable final and beautiful moment in the film. That moment follows an equally stirring moment juxtaposed against two alien life forms howling, groaning and connecting almost romantically.  The creatures are like two great humpback whales.  Edwards delivers a universally held belief that life, whether alien or foreign is simply attempting to survive, find its place and belong. In essence, we all yearn for these same things, these basic animal drives.  Edwards' journey is indeed an organic one as these passages of the heart can be glimpsed in all life.

I'm optimistic about Godzilla based on the effort put forth here on $500,000 bucks.  How does that happen!? I'm simply in awe over that.  The gutsy Edwards proves anything is possible with a vision, intelligence and a camera.  Trailblazers like director Makoto Shinkai would understandably be proud.  Trust me Edwards, you should be too, and we're behind you all the way.

Monsters: B. Writer: Gareth Edwards. Director: Gareth Edwards.

The Extras: You will discover a good deal of information on the extras provided with the Monsters release.  Much background is provided regarding Brit Gareth Edwards and his experience as a visual effects expert.  What the self-starting Edwards achieves with a home computer and software reminded me of the kind of vision and ingenuity that put Japanese director Makoto Shinkai (2002- Voices Of A Distant Star) on the map making films in animation with a similarly held approach and philosophy.  Working very much from an uncompromising home-based computing angle Shinkai and Edwards achieve much across their rearing in filmmaking.

Edwards brings much of that economy to Monsters making his film utilizing guerilla tactics. Working from a generally unscripted work, the film looks like much more than it has any right to look.  So based on his budget and his own personal interest Edwards created the anti-Monster film to Cloverfield and War Of The Worlds, a planet where monsters living amongst us has become commonplace.  One can't help but be tickled by the idea that the mighty Godzilla (2014) will see Edwards take this humble mindset and this approach along with him. The man thinks with a refreshing originality.  That can only benefit avoiding the clichés of a large scale Godzilla production.  We're always open to trademark Godzilla-isms (the classic roar, people running, tanks) but something refreshing in style and story will be a welcomed departure for the Big G.  Edwards might just be the man to do it.


le0pard13 said...

One of my favorite and surprising films of the last few years.

Jack Thursby said...

Monsters is a fantastic little film. I love how Edwards shot fast on location and then digitally put all those signs and stuff in later. Works beautifully.

I also enjoy the languid pace of whole thing. And the performances by Scoot and Whitney are great.

I think Godzilla 2014 is in very safe hands. I think it will be a complete 180 from the 1998 Emmerich flick.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Agree with you both.

Jack, Amazing work digitally.
I don't often watch the extras simply because I don't have the time but I did watch quite a few here and simply marvelled at what was achieved on the ground and what Edwards added digitally afterward.

I mean you know the fence and the signs are all added but everything is flawless in appearance.

Edwards really creates a post-invasion world.

I also concur that those performances are top shelf. Very good. Very believable. Very real.

I'm over the moon he's handling Godzilla.

And speaking of little monsters, hope all is going well for you.

Jack Thursby said...

Haha, yes little monster is doing well.

El Vox said...

I think I had the same reaction to Monsters as you did. It's a low key and low budget film, but I have to hand it to a director that can make something that well crafted given the miniscule budget. Although I would have loved to have seen a bit more action like the monsters tangling with a tank or something. :)

I think Monsters fits in with other such films like Signs, maybe Unbreakable, or Primer that deal with concepts rather than efxs. I had not considered the political underlying message of the film, but I can see how that's inferred. I don't know if that sort of encoded message is needed these days like the past, however since these sort of things can be said without fear of repercussion or censorship these days.

I just saw Oblivion the other day and had a little bit of a similar reaction. I thought it left me a bit underwhelmed although I enjoyed the visuals for sure, was engaged a bit more with it than Monsters, and I'd say it's worth checking out. But it was made for a huge chunk of money in comparison.

The Sci-Fi Fanatic said...

Yeah monsters tangling and perhaps a little more horror and jeopardy. I would have enjoyed that.

I definitely put Signs much higher but I get your point. The concentration of the film is very much the same without a lot of FX.

I'm looking forward to Oblivion when I get a chance.
Thanks El Vox