Monsters is an independent British film from first time film director Gareth Edwards and it’s one of the better films to come out of Britain for a very long time. I’m allowed to say that because I live there. Edwards worked in TV for some years before moving into film and he carries that TV ‘get the job done as inexpensive as possible’ attitude with him.
He wrote the script, he storyboarded it, he was the DoP, he did the visual effects and he directed the feature. No small feat for one man and the final result deserves some attention.
So how does one make a film with very little money? Take the Easy Rider (D Hopper - 1969) approach and improvise like hell. Get a camera (Sony EX3 with a Nikon 50mm lens) and carry it yourself, hire a sound man, go on location and shoot without permission, utilise the natural light so no need for lighting rigs etc, use real people as unpaid and unscripted extras and hire a real life couple to be your stars, don’t bother with a full script because the actors can wing it on the day. Now we’ve got ourselves a movie.
Afterwards apply visual effects using Adobe Premiere and edit with Adobe CS4. Job done.
Six years prior to the films beginning a NASA probe had been sent into deep space to collect a sample of a newly discovered alien life. The probe crashed upon re-entry and the alien life forms it had been carrying now occupy the northern regions of Mexico, just a little south of the United States border. They are breeding and the two governments are struggling to keep the area safe for human habitation.
Andrew Kaulder (played by Scoot McNairy) is a photojournalist in the area seeking that one essential shot that will kick-start his career but he is ordered to escort his boss’ daughter Samantha Wynden (played by Whitney Able) to safety, up through Mexico and into America. The border has been sealed and a giant wall built, designed to keep the aliens out. In order to get into the country the couple have to navigate through an ‘Infected Zone’, an area that the aliens use as a migration lane. Andrew is reluctant to do so but he gives in and so he and Samantha set off together.
The plot steals from H.G Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1898) and John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids (1951) and mixes them together into a kind of post apocalyptic road movie, albeit one informed by Jean-Luc Godard’s film form, John Cassavetes’ love of improvisation and some of Steven Spielberg’s more commercial monster moments.
It’s a documented telling of an imaginary event.
Considering the differing influences it shouldn't work but it does. Approximately every 15 minutes the script throws something quite philosophically profound at the viewer, something that will fuel the conversation on the ride home from the theatre or the debate over a pint at the bar.
The two protagonists are from different backgrounds and have developed a very different outlook on life. Samantha is a rich girl with a silver spoon upbringing and Andrew is a bit of an impatient cynic with a cold journalistic nature that threatens to engulf him. I should really say three characters as the cameraman is a 3rd unacknowledged character; he is us and we are him, witness to each characters thoughts. Despite being the ‘little rich girl’ Samantha has none of the prissy self-important clichéd attributes one would expect.
Tragedy brings people together, we’ve all witnessed it and some of us have even lived it. It’s no great spoiler to say that the couple begin to develop feelings for each other.
The relationship develops clumsily, awkwardly like in real life. Samantha has a fiancé waiting for her back in the States so things aren’t as black and white as Andrew would like.
Characters drift in and out of the story; they interact with the two leads and then move on with their own private lives. Like Apocalypse Now (F Coppola - 1979) we are aware that the journey is equally as important as the destination. (We even hear Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries on more than one occasion.)
Each new area we travel through offers some new visual clue that we are going headfirst into the very heart of the beast. The perimeter town is chaos filled with people trying desperately to get away, all except the locals who seem to accept that life is something to be lived and not escaped from; they accept the migration of the aliens as they would accept a storm, it will pass and life will go on as normal.
The jungle area is next and here we get one of the best scenes of the entire film, it’s powerful emotionally and visually and perfectly timed. We get a visual indication that things are not as they seem just prior to it, a bloody hand print on the side of a passing boat and the presence of militarised locals tell us something is not right. The director gives a number of visual and audio cues like this.
The keen viewer will be drawn into the world and the slow pace will be seen to be justified. From this point onward (from about 45 minutes in) the film is pure gold. The slow beginnings begin to mature and the characters know what they must do to survive.
When the titular monsters return for the inevitable finale it’s a definite Spielberg moment, think Jurassic Park (1993) but on a more personal scale. Unlike Spielberg’s Hollywood sensibilities however the scene does something unexpected which had me enthralled. For some viewers this ‘action’ moment may come a little late in the proceedings but I found it to be perfectly timed and perfectly executed. I can’t say any more as it will be spoiler. It may seem like I have laid out a lot of the story in this review but it’s nothing that you won’t have predicted from the first 15 minutes. Believe me when I say there are much more important things to be found in the film that I have avoided mentioning.
The score is by musician Jon Hopkins, another Brit whose previous film experience was in helping Brian Eno score The Lovely Bones (P Jackson - 2009). The mostly electronic score floats in and out at opportune moments, seeping into the atmosphere of a scene like soft waves caressing a deserted shore. It’s effective, functional, and unobtrusive and it fills the empty spaces in the dialogue well. Thankfully it never explodes into the bombastic monster movie fare that Hollywood would require of its compositions.
For the film student I would highly recommended a viewing of Monsters and I’d award it a three and a half or maybe a four star rating but for everyone else I don’t think it will sustain interest, and for those people it’s maybe closer to a two star rating. So let’s split the difference and call it a:
*** out of 5.