Monsters (Gareth Edwards/2010) UK/94mins. *****
Some key plot points are revealed below
Several years ago a film like Monsters – a contemplative alien invasion movie from first-time director Gareth Edwards – would’ve likely received a low-key release and gradually blossomed into that currently increasingly rare thing: the sleeper hit. Now, it’s a cause for widespread fascination even before the digital pixels have had time to settle into their live-footage backdrops. Such is the way of the current Faster More Now movie cycle. But then the film’s dexterously advanced technology, harnessed through Edwards’ seamlessly savvy way with a minuscule budget and a laptop, has made the film resound with loud appeal. And, hey, why ever not. Kudos to Edwards for getting it made. I’d never bemoan him the high praise he’s been getting for achieving such a nifty feat of movie-making proficiency. (Indeed some sequences in Monsters are wonderfully vivid and point to seasoned expertise, not first-time experimentation, behind the camera.) But I can’t quite see why it’s been touted as the revelatory world-beater that it has. Isn't Edwards just reconfiguring known components into something that merely looks slightly different?
The narrative isn’t up to much. In a relatively recently brokedown world, newly overrun by gigantic amphibious alien life forms, perplexed photographer Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is asked by his boss to shepherd his daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), through an “infected zone” between Mexico and North America to safety. The focus is on the two bound-for-each-other protagonists; the aliens are merely the remarkably-realised backdrop, a once otherworldly and unfamiliar element unleashed upon the world, now an irksome given. There are a few flickers of, if not quite terror, then curiously palpable unease within the thrifty narrative, but a few more pit-stop pauses evidently wedged in to further acquaint us with the couple and the gulf of burgeoning feeling between them.
An element of frustration for destruction-hungry viewers is inevitable. But the production gumpf tells us not to expect too many actual monsters in Monsters: thrill-seekers will have to look elsewhere; this is the calm after the storm. Any and all notable landmarks and famous monuments have long ago been smashed to pieces, their remnants already carted off to the scrapyard, leaving in their places well-photographed emptiness. We see the sunken aeroplanes, stranded boats and fractured roads left in the wake of an unforeseeable interstellar attack. But just because the characters within the world of Monsters are now passé about the environment being taken over by massive squid-like beings, it doesn’t mean that an audience will be. (Edwards' camerawork backs up the less-is-more approach in its almost staunch refusal to look for any extraneous adventure; he positions himself as baffled by-stander – I'm guessing the budgetary constraints may have something to do with this.) But it wouldn’t matter so much if spectacle and nonnatural flourish were sidelined for arousing dialogue and intrepid characters, but the dull-as-ditchwater duo present rankle. (Dare I suggest that – however refreshing it can be to see relative unknowns get a shot – my not-actually-joking preferred casting option of Paul Rudd and Anna Faris, playing it as straight as it required, might have imbued the film with much-needed personality.)
McNairy's and Able’s characters’ scant lack of personable charm doesn’t invite much sympathy for their plight. A rich-girl dreamer and a photographer-poseur are probably two types I’d like to see die off first in an alien invasion movie – however pared back the invasion is. Would a pair of wayward, forced explorers, desperate beyond words to reach their destinations, be as limp and ineffectual as they are? Whichever way you glaze it, there’s something a bit pat about a bland, good-looking couple falling in love with one another whilst an indifferent world continues on its path to hell around them. Is there anything truly captivating within the film's closing moments that suggest the pair won’t just carry on regardless after their exit? Will Andrew now not sell his photos to earn his living because he didn’t snap a dead child? Will Samantha not eschew all luxury now she’s seen a truck get crushed by tentacles? It's open to interpretation, surely. But nothing in their body language suggests sea change; nothing in their exchanges suggests revelation. Also, what if the two glowing squidy invaders in the penultimate shot aren’t sharing an intimate moment (as many people have proposed) but are actually having a chat to hatch an evil plan for world domination? It could go either way. Because we're ushered in the direction of dreamy realisation it doesn't mean to say that's what's happening.
Some stand-alone shots are quite moving. I very much liked the travelogue imagery of those abandoned wares and vehicles left forever distressed on the riverbanks and roads – the bits which get all too hastily glossed over in more familiar disaster movies such as 2012 or Independence Day. This depreciated everyday detritus, ignored and left to rot, often carries emotional significance, especially when no available human presence manages to shoulder it. There’s some intriguingly ominous business with a trolley-pushing bag lady, a massive walled enclosure - that either secures America from alien infection, or vice versa, depending on your personal interpretation of the film's title - and a mysterious, late-night river cruise. These moments arouse pathos splendidly and linger in the memory long after the images of the nearly-lovers’ bored faces evaporate. But Monsters’ journeying, though technically alluring, is rarely as immersive or as interesting as, say, Clive Owen’s befuddled, subjective path in Children of Men, or even as diverting as Cloverfield’s in-crowd’s directionless blundering. Edwards' film is a middling diversion, not the spectacular discovery you may have been lead to expect. As someone who wanted very much to include it on my year-end tally, it pains me to say that.