Sunday, January 23, 2011

Monsters (2010)

So, extraterrestrial life does exist, after all. Six years before the main action of Monsters takes place, a US space probe crashed in Central America, bringing with it a bunch of tentacled creatures that soon enough began to multiply and change the local ecosystem. Generally, these monsters seem only as aggressive as animals are when they feel threatened, but they are so large, and their actions so unpredictable, that the locations they have conquered are declared the "Infected Zone". In a not unexpected reaction to the situation, the USA have built a wall on their Southern border, and are now running regular chemical bombing raids on the Zone whose main effect seems to be to make the creatures there more aggressive.

Mexico for its part has to fight off the creatures' half-yearly migration wave with what little resources it has, obviously with an economy now completely in ruins. The rest of the world - also keeping with its traditions - really doesn't seem to care much about what happens south of the USA.

When the film starts, Mexico is just a few days away from closing its borders completely for the next six months. The photo journalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is quite unwillingly pressed into a different service for one of his employers than the ones he's usually paid for. His employer's daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) has been in some sort of accident, and her old man wants Kaulder to escort her out of Mexico as long as getting her out is still possible. Kaulder, who is a bit of a jerk at the best of times, only reluctantly agrees to help the slightly shell-shocked young woman.

After some travels through the countryside during which she and Kaulder get closer to each other, a slightly contrived set of circumstances leads to Samantha missing the last boat out of the country. The only alternative to waiting out the next six months - and who knows if there will still be a country to flee from afterwards - is to take the completely illegal, dangerous route through the jungles of the Zone to the American wall.

A few of the more critical reviews of Gareth Edwards' Monsters I read on the 'net were loudly complaining about the film not being the giant monster bash the reviewers expected nor (oh my gosh!) it being the horror movie they expected. These reviewers are right on both accounts in so far as there's no monster bashing or mashing at all to be found in the movie and that it surely isn't a horror movie, but rather SF/romance film. Personally, I've always been fond of trying to deal with a movie on its own terms instead of reviewing what it isn't, and so can't help but call bullshit on the idea that a film not being what I expected of it means that it is a bad movie.

Monsters is in fact pretty darn great, treating its characters and its SF-nal concepts with an earnestness that shows great respect for the intelligence of its viewers. There is not a single second of the usual (and terrible) talking down to the audience that in too many films manifests itself in long, tiring and usually dumb reams of exposition to be found in its worldbuilding. What my synopsis above takes quite a few sentences to explain about the basic set-up, the film itself does through two sentences in the credits and intelligently placed incidental details that fully trust in the ability of the movie's audience to not only see something, but actually understand it. You know, like I'd hope for in all contemporary SF films (for a great example of how not to do low-exposition SF, see - or rather not - Skyline). This aspect of Monsters, a deft application of the old "show, don't tell" rule if I've ever seen one, reminds me most of that other great, unassuming SF film of the last few years, Moon.

Of course it's not enough to put just any old detail in to make a slightly different world (be it a mining operation on the moon or a near-apocalyptic Central America) believable and make it feel like a real place, it need to be the right details. Monsters is more or less perfect in this respect, starting with the flashes of newscasts we see, continuing through the ubiquitousness of gasmasks and not ending in elements like the short snippet of a (public service) children's cartoon from a world in which monsters are real. These details and the way the characters act towards the world they are living in come together beautifully and make the film's near future perfectly believable, not like an idea made flesh for ninety minutes, but like a real world.

Another reason for Monster's effectiveness is director (and writer, too) Edwards' photography. Edwards' camera work has a semi-documentarian quality about it, the sort of thing that could easily just end up as a mess of shaky cam and random shouting on the soundtrack. But where many other film's making use of this style tend to the hectic, Edwards' film seems more interested in using it to get closer to things and characters, to make them feel more real.

There's a true sense of beauty - possibly even poetry - running through the film's sideways looks at deserted ruins where a few years ago people were living and at the changes an alien ecosystem has brought. Monsters is driven by a visual sense of awe that reminds me of the films of Werner Herzog. Although the film is quite clear about the fact that its monsters are frightening and dangerous, the audience's clearest looks at them are clothed in a sense of wonder towards their beauty and strangeness. On a less obvious level, Edwards suggests that the monsters are made more dangerous by the way humanity interacts with them, without ever landing on the soppy side of the "poor, unloved alien". The film's very low-key love story (that might be more of a story of attraction through loneliness) with its sad, yet underplayed, ending is just as lacking in sentimentality, and just the more convincing for it.

Strangely enough for a film that doesn't have much of a plot, the word that comes to my mind most when I think about Monsters is "richness". It's not the sort of richness that could result from the ideology of "more is more", but something that is grounded in showing just enough of the right things to pull a viewer into a film as if it were a place and not a story.


No comments: