Directed By: Gareth Edwards
Release Date: October 29, 2010
Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able
Between the United States and Mexico, there sits the Infected Zone, a quarantined area inhabited by extraterrestrial life that hitched a ride on a NASA probe that had once crashed in the area. For those south of the quarantine's border, the threat of attack by these creatures, which have grown into towering, octopus-like beasts, is always looming, while those located north - in the U.S. - are seemingly protected by a large wall keeping the monsters out.
Though soldiers from both countries work tirelessly to both keep the creatures contained and destroy them, life must go on for everyone else, including Andrew Kaulder, a photojournalist from the U.S. in Mexico seeking to document the lives and environment of those living south of the zone. But before he can really get started, he's tasked with finding his employer's daughter, Samantha, and getting her safely back to the U.S., a mission that becomes anything but easy as the two wind up with no choice but to put their lives on the line and travel directly through alien territory to make it back home.
From its basic premise and general setup, I went into director Gareth Edwards' Monsters expecting one thing and getting something completely different. Monsters was Edwards' first feature film, a project that landed him 2014's big Godzilla gig and the upcoming Star Wars film Rogue One, and while I still haven't seen the former yet, I can't deny that much of my motivation to finally watch Monsters stemmed from what we've seen so far of his Star Wars effort. And because both Godzilla and Star Wars are both hugely popular science fiction properties designed for the masses, I can't lie that I had certain expectations about Monsters; that he had to have done something with it in a big, bold, action-focused way that made his selection to helm two big, bold, action-focused blockbusters make sense.
As with (mostly) all films, I try not to let my personal expectations guide my ultimate enjoyment of what I actually experience. If a film veers off in a different direction than I anticipated, I'm all for it, so long as it remains good. With Monsters, I went in expecting the type of genre movie we've seen before, where the two unassuming leads are put through the paces, with action beat after action beat turning them into warriors in advance of one final showdown against the very creatures they've been harassed by throughout the runtime. Fortunately, the narrative and characters of Monsters never fall in line with that, resulting in a film that pleasantly surprised me even if it has and will continue to disappoint newcomers who can't let go of such expectations.
Right off the bat, Monsters intentionally lives up to those expectations in a brief sequence that sees U.S. soldiers suddenly doing battle with one of the giant aliens, giving the audience a decent look at one of its titular beasts before spending the rest of its runtime thoroughly subverting its bullet-riddled opening. In fact, outside of a few further glimpses in news footage, the aliens don't appear in full again until an hour into the film, and even then, appearances continue to remain fleeting up until the very end.
The world and backstory of Monsters are almost peripheral to the story it actually wants to tell. Both leads, played admirably by Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, are flawed individuals removed from their lives "back home," one by choice, the other not really given one, and the film uses their larger-than-life situation as a backdrop against which the two connect with one another, bonding less via the extraordinary circumstances they've found themselves in and more through the sharing of their experiences of "normal" life itself.
Along their journey, there are brief flickers of action and tension, one of my favorite being a sequence where the duo - along with two escorts - are stuck on a boat in the middle of the night, its engine having died, and something begins drawing close, throwing everyone into panic mode, stuck between trying to stay silent and risk being attacked or getting the noisy engine restarted to escape and still risk getting attacked. The film is populated with moments like this that continually lend a wonderful sense of unease to Kaulder and Samantha's trek, but ultimately any and all action itself is inconsequential to the pair's development. As I mentioned earlier, genre films like this tend to make superhumans out of normal humans, but neither character so much as picks up a gun throughout its runtime, their emotional arc proving more important than trying to forcibly reshape them into pieces of a loud, unnecessary final showdown.
As a result, Monsters might as well be an exercise in subtlety, the film's great world-building creating a perpetual sense that anything can happen even when nothing does, keeping both its characters and audience on their toes just in case. It almost feels like a documentary in the way it is shot, evoking a sense of the found footage genre without involving an actual found footage aspect, grounding itself in a way that lends to its unpredictability that something shot more traditionally might not have been able to pull off.
Contributing much to that documentary feel is the matter-of-fact way in which certain imagery is presented. As the pair make their way through the Infected Zone, they see abandoned factories and hotels left crumbling in jungles, or boats and airplanes left long ago to rust, ghosts of a world that may never be reclaimed. Rather than present it as spectacle, Edwards allows these types of images to be seen through his characters' eyes; they're often intrigued, but their lack of outright awe suggests this is really nothing new to them. It's all just part of the film's world, and nothing is ever turned into spectacle in a way that tries to steal attention away from Kaulder and Samantha and their own view of it.
Even beyond that, it's often a gorgeous film to look at, its actual production in Central America giving rise to great shots of various jungles, rivers, sunsets, and so on that - to repeat myself - add to that documentary feel and the idea that the audience is really along for the ride with Kaulder and Samantha. Sometimes CGI elements stick out - a tank, some of the ruins they come across, etc. - but they're so trivial that it really doesn't matter when the rest of the film itself looks so good.
Conversely, the CGI bringing the tentacled behemoths to life is quite effective, bolstered in particular by the fact that they appear almost exclusively at night. In total, they may only appear onscreen for a matter of minutes, but their design is simple and uncomplicated, with a bioluminescent component to their appearance culminating in a tranquil mating sequence that, once again, helps the film entirely subvert being an outright exhibit for monster mayhem. It's surprisingly tender, and plays right into the film's ultimate message about its two lead characters coming together.
I'm sure many have and will continue to dismiss Monsters solely based on its title and general premise, thanks in no part to the influence of decades of cheap, tacky monster movies. However, the film's placement of what is, essentially, a romantic drama against a canvass stitched together by many familiar genre elements is more than unique, as well as particularly refreshing in a time when quality films arising from the sci-fi/monster genre seem to be growing less and less in number. It's not perfect, but it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to achieve, and if Edwards can bring this level of character work and subversion to his upcoming Star Wars anthology film, I'll be happy. Until then, it's more than worth your time if you're willing to put aside any notion of wild thrills and chills for something far more subdued but enjoyably engaging nonetheless.
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