It may be somewhat unfair to compare Skyline and Monsters to District 9, but the comparisons are inevitable. The success of 2009’s sci-fi hit can almost certainly be credited to the release of both movies. Skyline got it all wrong, concentrating on spectacular effects at the expense of storyline and acting.
Monsters, on the other hand, is an altogether different beast. There are alien intruders, and they have had a massive effect on the native populace. But whilst District 9 wore its political message on its sleeve, Monsters, much like Never Let Me Go released in theatres two months later, uses its sci-fi premise as merely a backdrop to explore a much more personal, human drama story.
Mexico has been tagged an ‘infected’ zone, the result of an alien presence stemming from a crashed NASA probe that brought with it organisms extra terrestrial in nature. Every year, alien activity occurs throughout the country, and as a result Mexico has been all but abandoned, and cordoned off from above and below.
Scoot McNairy plays Andrew Kaulder, a photojournalist trying to eke out a living taking pictures of the fallen alien monsters and the destruction they have caused, dreaming of the chance to get some live photos of the beasts. He is somewhat perturbed when he is press-ganged into babysitting duty, when Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of his boss, finds herself injured and stranded on the outskirts of the infected zone, cut off from her native US by hundreds of miles of alien occupied terrain.
He reluctantly takes on the job, and as a result their relationship is awkward at first. To make matters worse, their journey does not run smoothly. Soon, their options are narrowed, and forced into travelling through rather than around the infected area, both the situation and their relationship become exponentially complicated.
The actors were given a rough script outline, but were left to improvise the exact content of their exchanges. Director Gareth Edwards shot the whole movie guerilla style, using both the shoot locations and the people found within to populate his story. This results in a very real, authentic feel to the entire film. The beautiful setting helps to support the feeling of two people forced out of their comfort zones, travelling across foreign soil, desperate to find their way home.
Both actors do a great job with their roles, with McNairy particularly coming across very naturally, with an Earthy, though at times prickly charm. The relationship between the two protagonists follows a somewhat predictable path, which is possibly the weakest element of the film. As with any story, you have a fair idea of how it will all end up, which would provide a challenge for any filmmaker.
Edwards though manages to keep it very interesting, with the constant journey keeping everything moving along nicely, and the implied threat of the alien presence lending a genuine sense of threat to the proceedings. It is perhaps this threat that is the most effective part of the film. For two-thirds of the film, we are shown very little of the beings themselves, instead reminded of their presence by the constant reminders of the destruction they have left in their wake. As a result, when they finally do turn up, it is to much greater effect, provoking a truly stunning reaction. I don’t think it is possible to overstate what an impressive job Gareth Edwards has done, producing such a visually stunning film on a shoestring budget.
The climax of the film pays off nicely, though may again be a little predictable, and too twee for some. Edwards uses the simplicity of the aliens existence to point out how needlessly complex we make our own lives, and all at once we are bombarded with overt messages about tolerance, preconception, and the value of life and the relationships we forge throughout our own. All this is just about earned over the duration of the film, but as I say, for some, this may be just a little too much sentiment all at once.
For me, however, it works. Monsters is a beautifully crafted film. The direction is carefully restrained, allowing the characters and surroundings to tell the story, and forcing very little exposition into the narrative. The pace is somehow both leisurely and rapid at the same time, and long scenes seem to fly by in an instant. There are some very tender and emotionally satisfying moments, and the how experience can be considered just that – an experience. Some films you watch, and take in, but in many ways Monsters washes over you – you don’t truly appreciate its effect on you until the credits role. A genuinely pleasant surprise, and one of my films of the year. I’m excited to see what Gareth Edwards does with his next project, Legendary Pictures’ Godzilla reboot.
Bazmann – You can follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/baz_mann