Friday, 29 April 2011

Monsters (2010)

Country: UK

I can imagine that many a mindless moron rented or purchased this title expecting the usual masturbatory excesses of modern CGI, and the hollow spectacle of alien marauders laying waste to mankind. One can well imagine the disappointment of the retards when Monsters develops into a subtle and nuanced character driven narrative that is far more concerned with humanity than it is showing off its visual effects. The sparing attitude to special effects allows the uncluttered narrative an opportunity to develop in interesting ways and retain an emotional core that might have been lost amid the artificiality of modern filmmaking techniques. Monsters also distinguishes itself in the creative control wielded by newcomer Gareth Edwards. British filmmaker Edwards not only wrote and directed Monsters but also acted as cinematographer, production designer and created many of the visual effects. This was also Edwards’ first feature film and he imbues it with a fearless impetuosity and an impressive awareness of the genre it sits within. It is perhaps a little too early to think of Edwards as an auteur, but this level of creative control is most unusual in genre filmmaking, and signifies to me at least, that the career of Edwards will be worth keeping an eye on. It will be interesting to see if Edwards is able to maintain this when the big budget investment of American producers inevitably comes his way.

One of the most impressive aspects of Monsters is the way in which the filmmakers integrate their science-fiction premise within a grimy and naturalistic Mexican setting. The film was shot entirely on location in Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico and Texas, and this helps to give a sense of both immediacy and verisimilitude to the bizarre series of events that befall the couple we follow. The story takes place some six years after a NASA probe returned from one of the moons of Jupiter. With the probe came knowledge, but also an alien life form which exists in an infected quarantine zone in Mexico and is kept in check by the destructive hardware of the US military. The shattered streets are festooned with the skeletal remnants of less successful military attempts to control the creatures, and the urban disintegration and alienation gives Monsters an eerie post-apocalyptic feel. Interestingly Edwards’ screenplay chooses too omit any scientific rationale for the events. The US are almost entirely represented by the missiles that obliterate and destroy, and any empathy or attempt to understand the creatures is lost in their desperation to make sure the alien beings do not cross the border into North America. It is no coincidence that the US are represented as an occupying force, physically altering an environment they have no right too, in order to contain something that they have brought to earth.

The allegorical imagery of foreign military incursions goes hand in hand with concerns over immigration and border control. We are given access to the difficulty and hazard in crossing the border by following the journey of Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) and Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), an odd couple who find themselves paired up, and after a series of misfortunes, having to negotiate the infected zone in order to get home. Kaulder is a photo-journalist whose journey becomes an odyssey of self discovery as he realises the moral cost he has paid for selling images of human misery. Kaulder’s cynicism begins to melt away due to his affection and desire for Sam, and due to his dawning awareness that the alien creatures are not aggressive, but are in fact an oppressed minority. The film takes on the form of an episodic road movie as the pair encounter one heart rending moment after another. The fatigue and exhaustion that sets in gives a wearying sense of realism, which is often interrupted by a brief moment of fantastical revelation. We are given brief snatches of the creatures, but a river journey in the dark heartland of the Mexican countryside reveals them to be towering spider like beings who pulse and glow with life and emit mournful mating calls. Their acts of violence merely an attempt to defend themselves from the bullets and bombs that whine all about them.

For much of the film they are an unseen menace, and we are offered brief and tantalising glimpses, and this helps build the tension and suspense. Edwards shows a remarkable amount of patience, and the actors effectively convey a sense of alienated awe. The two leads are the only professional actors in the film, Edwards' decision to populate the film with non-professionals is an arty touch, but never once are the veracity of the performances in question. The film ends in a curious fashion after our unwitting heroes have negotiated the giant border wall that is supposed to keep the US free of infection. What they find on the other side is a depressing empty ghost town, a sign that for all their technological and military might the US are ultimately unable to control their borders from the invaders. The benevolent nature of the alien creatures is confirmed by a moving finale which sees two of them mating, a wonderful ritual which shows that love springs in even the hardiest of circumstances. A sign that confirms to Sam and Andrew that their love can withstand the pressures it is about to endure, and ultimately makes them thankful for the journey they have just undertaken. Monsters is a rare British science-fiction film that is destined to become an essential title.

© Shaun Anderson 2011


  1. Looks like the antidote to Skyline!

  2. SKYLINE was abysmal, a very stupid film full of all the irritations of modern CGI riddled sci-fi. You'll get a lot more out of MONSTERS Rich.

  3. I rented this, but haven't sat down to watch it yet, Shaun. Interestingly enough, Edwards is apparently attached to the upcoming Godzilla film from Legendary Pictures/WB. I saw an interview with him where he discussed his approach to that series and he seemed rather nervous in its discussion saying relatively little in the process.

    Still, I've heard lots of good things about MONSTERS over the last year. I'm certain I will like it.

  4. Yes I read about Edwards' involvement with the new Godzilla project when doing some research for this review. It seems to me a massive burden for someone who has only directed one feature length film. I dont think he need be nervous though, he's hardly joining auspicious company. The number of poor Godzilla films outweighs the good by a huge margin.

    MONSTERS isn't brainless, which is perhaps the greatest compliment one can give for a modern sci-fi film.


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