Saturday, December 10, 2011

Love in the Time of Aliens

Film: Monsters
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

If I have to pick a genre that I like more than any other, on most days I’d pick science fiction. I really enjoy good science fiction, which to me is defined as science fiction that has a brain. Dumb science fiction isn’t really any better than a dumb story from another genre, but good, smart science fiction tends to ask interesting questions and tends to answer them in interesting ways. I suppose in reality modern science fiction is my favorite; my favorite classic genre is film noir. If I have to narrow down further, though, I really like films that sit at that juncture between science fiction and horror.

This brings us to Monsters, the 2010 release from Gareth Edwards. Like a number of recent indie films, it was made on a relatively small budget (roughly half a million by estimates I have seen) and looks like it was made for a great deal more. It’s a giant monster movie, an alien invasion movie, a drama, and a romance all at the same time. This makes Monsters sound like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but that’s not really the case. For all of the directions it goes in, this film is really pretty focused.

The thrust of the story is pretty basic. A number of years ago, a space probe broke up over Mexico. Not too long afterwards, gigantic alien creatures began stomping around Mexico, and I do mean gigantic. These creatures now rule roughly the northern 2/3 of Mexico in an area called the “Infected Zone,” and the United States has built a huge wall to keep them from crossing the Rio Grande.

In Mexico, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of a publishing magnate, is hiding out. It seems that she is having second thoughts about her engagement. But Mexico is a dangerous place to be. While the creatures tend to stay within the Infected Zone, they don’t always, and thousands of Mexican citizens are killed every year. It’s time for Sam to go home, but even travel is difficult, and not leaving in time will force her to stay in Mexico for another six months. That may not sound so bad, but Mexico, thanks to the creatures, is essentially a warzone.

Sent to bring her back is Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist who works for Sam’s father. He’s in Mexico to get pictures of the giant creatures and the destruction they cause. But now he has to babysit Sam back to the U.S., or at least get her on a plane or a boat that will take her there. And, of course, if the journey to the coast was an easy one, we wouldn’t have a movie. Eventually, completely out of other options, the two are forced to attempt to enter the U.S. by passing through the Infected Zone, a sort of massive-alien-filled El Norte.

This sounds like an action movie, doesn’t it? If Edwards had had a larger budget, it probably would have been one. Alas, that simply wasn’t the case. Edwards was forced to work within the constraints of the limited budget he had, a budget that forced him to essentially film actual scenes with unknowing passersby filling in as extras. So what we get instead of gun battles against 60-foot-high tentacle beasts out of a Lovecraftian dream is an indie romance between Sam and Andrew.

This was unexpected. It’s also something of a disappointment.

I recently had a conversation with Kai Parker over at Man, I Love Films about one of the reasons he’s not a fan of many films before about 1980. One of the reasons he cited is that couples seem to fall in love instantly in older movies without any justification of it. I see that, but I’d hold this film up to Kai as an example of modern films not stepping away from that old model in the least. Sam may well be engaged to someone back in the States and Andrew has a son, but these two are immediately attracted to each other. In fact, the reason they are forced to go through the Infected Zone is because Andrew is robbed of their passports, which happens when Sam has a temper tantrum after seeing him with another woman. And this is after one day together. Take that, Kai.

I won’t say that Monsters isn’t an interesting or entertaining movie, because it is both of these things. And, despite it’s apparent multiple personalities, it seems to know what it wants to be. However, it comes in vastly different trappings from the standard indie romance film, which is what it is in its heart. It may well also be a subtle indictment on American immigration policy, but that’s a stretch for a film from a British filmmaker.

More or less, this is my problem with the film. I wanted this to be a film about fighting these awesome creatures, and while there are some tense moments and some decent effects for this low budget, it would be a much more interesting film as well as a much more entertaining one if it had been more about the critters and less about romance blooming between two people thrust into a difficult situation with each other. Even those times it feels like we’re finally going to see one of the aliens, we generally instead have a scene that develops our two principal characters instead. Normally, I’m all for character development instead of explosions, but when the film ostensibly deals with giant land-based octopus beasts, the opposite is true.

This is worth watching to see a film that capitalizes brilliantly on its small budget, but there are more interesting and entertaining places this film could have gone.

Why to watch Monsters: Low budget science fiction that looks more expensive than it is.
Why not to watch: It could have gone more interesting places.

4 comments:

  1. You've nicely summed up my feelings on this film. It definitely needed more face time with the beasties. I think what you may be looking for in an indie "monster film" is Troll Hunter (2010).

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  2. I've been thinking of watching that just for the hell of it. It looks pretty interesting...or at least really fun.

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  3. I didn't need more monster time - if you want that, watch District 9. I was infatuated with what Edwards was able to do on a shoestring budget (for this type of flick) and by using guerrilla filmmaking techniques. Those things can make me forgive a whole hell of a lot of other potential potholes. Monsters isn't a fantastic film but merely a good one, but it has me wildly interested in Edwards' future flicks.

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  4. Yeah, District 9 had plenty of critters...and I liked it a lot more than I liked this one. I agree that the low budget is what makes this worth watching. And yes, it's a good movie (I believe I said as much above). With more focus on the land octopi, though, it could have been a great movie.

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