Thursday, March 31, 2011

Monsters (2010)

When I finished watching Monsters (2010) and was about to turn off the television at the credits, I noticed that its director, Gareth Edwards, was also responsible for the film's photography and visual effects. I was impressed as I thought that these two qualities were the film's strongest. I also thought that the two lead performances by Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy were very good, and the two are clearly talented actors who I would not mind seeing again in another film. Beyond these aspects, Monsters is not wholly satisfying: I wanted more from what was there and wanted less of what was actually shown.

Simple premise: The presence of alien life has been discovered in space, and a satellite was launched to collect data. The satellite made an unsuccessful re-entry, and the collected data scattered as debris on the earth's surface. Alien life has appeared in this area; and it has been designated an "infected zone" and it is located in Mexico, south of the U.S. border. A photojournalist, Andrew, working for an American magazine is south of the zone in Mexico, hoping to get some photos of the dramatic action caused by the upheaval at the local level in Mexico, the presence of the U.S. military, and of course, the alien life. Andrew's publisher (more of a mogul) has a daughter, Samantha, located in the same area as Andrew. He quietly commands Andrew to escort his daughter back to the U.S., safely.

One of the benefits of the modern visual style of filmmaking, taking its cues from documentary and news media, is to invoke a sense of an objective style of capturing footage; so the viewer is free to form his/her own opinion while watching. This is of course a fiction and still requires a "suspension of belief" on behalf of the viewer. Alternatively, however, one can say this style really calls attention to itself with its handheld-style camera work, with a specific emphasis on "handheld." There's always at least a lingering sense that someone is holding a camera, capturing footage, and making a movie. It's a brilliant style, always at risk of appearing either organic or contrived. Both results, organic or contrived, can also be brilliant. Edwards captures some fantastic imagery with some striking compositions, such as when Monsters visits the small villages in Mexico; the "post-apocalyptic" imagery, such as downed plane or a vehicle stuck in a tree; or genuine location captures, such as when Andrew and Sam visit a pyramid near the U.S. border.

One of the aspects that really aids this modern visual style of filmmaking, in terms of making it seem organic, is the absence of dramatic music accompanying the action. Edwards has chosen to include dramatic music within Monsters. This is inherently not a flaw, as the only potential result is the film seems, with its inclusion, more contrived. It does, however, become a strong flaw within Monsters. As the film progresses and Andrew and Sam make an arduous journey to the U.S. border and beyond, the viewer gets a sampling of accompanying music during scenes. There is music invoking a sad feeling when Sam is looking at memorials of dead children; there is music invoking a contemplative or ponderous sense as Sam and Andrew are walking an empty street with no signs of life around; and there is music invoking an ominous sense when the aliens and humans have an encounter. There is actually a scene when the ominous music begins and the viewer is the first to realize that the aliens are about to appear. The characters are initially unaware. Odd. Monsters certainly could have benefited from the absence of dramatic music.

Computer-generated visual effects receive the harshest criticism from viewers and critics alike when they are done poorly. In other words, nearly everyone finds its grating when imagery created by a computer looks exactly like imagery created from a computer. Edwards in creative fashion attempts to hide his computer-generated imagery in the shadows. I believe nearly all of the alien and human encounters occur at night, and the frame is often very dark. The aliens are put in a corner of the composition. Like shadows, the alien imagery is vague and unformed. Edwards does, however, have at least one scene where an alien tentacle is shown in the light; and my cinematically-trained mind immediately had flashbacks of Anaconda (1997). It seems as if the entirety of Monsters wants to avoid these types of viewer flashbacks, and Edwards almost makes it to the end. I ended up questioning this scene's inclusion, as I don't understand it. Also, when the screen went almost completely dark, as the film progressed, I was ready for an alien encounter.

I suppose the film's philosophical and socio-critical themes deserve mention. Monsters doesn't hide them: they are almost completely delivered via dialogue. When characters, for example, sit around a traditional setting, like a campfire, and begin to have a philosophical conversation, it appears exactly like it is. The words become focal, and the viewer is watching a conversation but primarily listening. There is such a didactic quality to these scenes in Monsters that it is off-putting. Interestingly, the simple character-driven themes, such as Andrew's abandonment of his own commercial gains to learn some humanity and Samantha's quest to discover what she wants out of life, are the film's most interesting. Able and McNairy really imbue these qualities with their performances. In fact, if Monsters had completely focused on these two characters and their personal, spiritual journeys, then Monsters would have been a much more affecting emotional film; and Edwards still would be able to include his philosophical themes and social criticism. Alfonso Cuaron executed this style brilliantly with his film Y Tu Mama Tambien.

As an alternative to blockbuster, big-bang explosion, Hollywood cinema, I can see how some viewers will find Monsters refreshing and creative. Monsters is refreshing and creative in that respect. I suppose I'm still looking for something different from cinema, and I didn't find it here.


Heavenztrash said...

I really enjoyed Monsters, myself. I went into it with zero expectations, and really had only heard that the budget had been some ridiculously low figure (was it $200,000?) I should revisit it as I've only watched it once, last Halloween. At any rate, nice review, sir.

Erich Kuersten said...

Nicely enscapsulated...I liked this movie, but then forgot all about it the minute it was over. Nice idea though, the monsters kind of as a background to a tender tale.

A.D. said...

I wasn't very impressed with this one either, Hans. MONSTERS has been a very divisive movie from what I've read and heard so far, and I can see why. Personally, what killed the movie for me were the two main characters, neither of whom I gave a shit about. The guy was fucking annoying and the chick pissed me off for numerous reasons. I did appreciate the film as sort of an alternative to DISTRICT 9 on a much smaller scale, and I also liked the design of the aliens when you actually DO see them (specifically at the end of the film), but otherwise... "meh".ant

Mr.LargePackage said...

Stellar review, Hans. I agree with your assessment. I'm just glad to find out I wasn't the only one who saw monsters in Mexico. And that is large and in charge.