Saturday, October 9, 2010

Here there be Monsters

Monsters (2010)

I recently watched through VOD (Video-On-Demand) the long-anticipated movie Monsters, from first time writer/director Gareth Edwards. The film is due in theaters on October 29, 2010.

Edwards set blogs ablaze the last several months with clips of his first feature film and the knowledge that he was doing it all for a budget around $15,000, making him the 21st century’s new Robert Rodriguez (Edwards also served as credited production designer, cinematographer and visual effects supervisor).

With fingers crossed we sat down to watch this film, the story of a man and a woman forced to trek across Central America and Mexico – an area infested with dangerous alien creatures - to make their way back home to the United States. Call it Planes, Trains and Automobiles Meets The Mist (By Way of Cloverfield).

A prologue tells us that we discovered life in our solar system, but when we sent a space probe to collect samples and return to Earth, it broke up over Central America and the alien life forms started to spread, not just outward, covering the area, but upward as well: they appear to be 200 feet tall fully grown.

The story follows a photographer, Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), who is still trying to get that one great shot of the creatures that will win him the cover of a major magazine and propel him to the big leagues. He’s forced by the owner of the magazine he works for to play chaperone for the boss’s daughter, Sam (Whitney Able). His new assignment: get her out of Central America and safely back to the U.S.

For $15,000 this is an outstanding film; it looks good, sounds good and the visual effects – apparently created with off the shelf software (Adobe AfterEffects, etc) on a standard pc – are amazing. But the story is flat and the characters not defined enough.

In Monsters, the adversities the couple faces always seem to be on the same level, perhaps due to the low budget. Instead of building to a boiling point the movie just keeps a slow simmer and never gets any hotter. When their plans for Sam to take a ferry boat home collapse, they are forced to travel by car through the infected zone. But this is where the movie trips up. They build up the zone as so dangerous nobody can make it through. However the movie goes out of its way to paint a “life goes on” picture – even though there are giant monsters lumbering about behind hundred foot tall fences and fighter jets and helicopters constantly streaking across the skies, people will be people, so you have to have a roof over your head, you gotta feed your kids, there are still festivals to put on and attend - you have to mourn the dead, but still celebrate life.

I come back to Planes, Trains and Automobiles: each calamity forced those characters to further bang their heads together and examine their lives. It wasn’t enough that they had to share a single bed in a motel room, but then that room was broken into and they had their cash and credit cards stolen (which figures into a later scene). And then of course, they wake up the next morning in each other’s arms (one of the most famous scenes in modern comedy history).

It’s not much of a spoiler but at the end Kaulder and Sam have feelings for each other, but this story didn’t justify how they got there. Kaulder never really stood up and did anything heroic – he didn’t grab a gun and start shooting the monsters when their mercenary guides were killed. He didn’t have any special knowledge or know how that got them out of a tight jam. They were just a passive couple on a somewhat dangerous journey together.

This is a movie that wannabe (and veteran) filmmakers should watch for the technical aspects. I absolutely applaud Gareth Edwards and his two-man crew on what they were able to accomplish (I imagine 15 grand doesn't even cover lunch for a day on a Michael Bay picture). But the simple fact of the matter is you would need to look elsewhere for a more compelling story.

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