6 December 2010

There's Always One- MONSTERS Review

Remember how District 9 dazzled everybody last year to become the sleeper hit of the year? I also remember how inevitable it seemed that a weaker copycat film would shortly manifest itself. Monsters is not that film, despite what the deceptively similar marketing techniques might have you believe. Aside from not erring too close to Neill Blomkamp's film in content though, it's also not really anywhere near as good.

Writer-director Gareth Edwards paints the America of Monsters as a post-Cloverfield continent. Alien encounters have become a routine occurrence, six years after the destruction of a space probe brought tonnes of alien spores down to Earth in Central America. This led to everything in between the USA and Mexico being cordoned off as an infected zone, through which photojournalist Andrew must escort his boss' daughter Samantha.

Despite the pains I have to go to to make a blurb about the world, the plot is far more about the last part of that synopsis than about the world it's set in. It's never usually a problem when a filmmaker focuses on character development and story over bombast and spectacle, but the problem here is that the characters and story are not that arresting. Because the crew was so small, many of the supporting actors are people that they met along the way and persuaded to be in the film. So while Edwards gets the writing credit for coming up with the step outline, much of the film is ad-libbed whenever the extras are involved. The story of the film's production is more engaging than the film itself.

I don't know about anyone else, but I generally hold that when it comes to film, it's better to find truth in a construction, than to try and construct truth and fail. That's why, in terms of comedy, for example, something as wildly over the top as I Love You Phillip Morris seems more human to me than mumblecore output like Cyrus or Greenberg. Edwards' sketchy approach means that the bystanders come across as even more strained, rather than naturalistic. Real life couple Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able are fair enough as Andrew and Samantha, but I never really invested in their characters like I was supposed to. Simply put, they're not that interesting, and it's a real shame that the film uses the world's acceptance of aliens as a licence to show no interest in the world either.

Surely the most notable thing about the film is its budget, and the professional look it has, for that budget. Edwards created all of the special effects shots himself in post-production, using consumer level software like Autodesk 3ds Max. The film itself was shot guerilla-style on location, with a tiny crew and not so much as a camera dolly to work with. The production budget came to just over half a million, apparently, and for that, I have to say that it's a very handsome film. The special effects are extremely well integrated and make even the Cthulhu-like monsters of the title look realistic. The trouble is that the film is focused instead on the relationship drama, which doesn't hold up because the characters aren't that likeable.

Edwards says he was aiming for “War of the Worlds meets Lost In Translation”, and that's at least a sharp relief from the usual alien invasion movie tropes. By taking the decision to stick with these characters, we do get some consummately executed moments. The closest thing the film has to an action scene is viewed from inside the jeep where Andrew and Samantha are hiding. We don't get lascivious shots of how great the CG monsters look in that scene, but we're instead confined to a vehicle, with our leads, in a scene that's reminiscent of Jurassic Park, another Spielberg film.

The film itself is never as interesting as the idea though, nor is it as interesting as its own special effects. The praise for the film, as far as I can see, is coming from one very specific place- the place that wants independent films to take on Hollywood at their own game with a fraction of its budget. Where District 9 and Kick-Ass have succeeded in the past year by being produced outside of the studio system and for a fraction of say, Avatar's budget, those were both great movies with great performances and a great script, irrespective of budget.  

Monsters is really more of an achievement in visuals, for its relatively low budget. It's less of an achievement in entertainment or storytelling, and when I was led to expect a masterpiece by everyone and their mums, I don't feel the result is that memorable. I do hope that Monsters does well in cinemas all the same, because as disappointing as it was, it's still a cut above most of the other stuff now playing in multiplexes. It's not District 9, no matter how desperately the distributors want it to be, but it is a captivating albeit frustrating piece. Edwards comes close enough to getting it right this time that I'm looking forward to whatever he does next.

Monsters is now showing at cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen Monsters, why not share your comments below? If you need any more persuasion that Vertigo Films are dying to make this into the new District 9, look no further than the title. In the actual film, the aliens are always referred to as "creatures" and their lack of screen time makes that title equivalent to calling Unstoppable "Peace and Quiet".

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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