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Back in 2008, everyone seemed to go crazy over J J Abrams monster movie Cloverfield, except me. I thought it was little more than a cynical marketing exercise designed to hype up what was a weak and disappointing film. With Monsters, Brit director Gareth Edwards shows how it should have been done.
Six years ago, aliens arrived on Earth and ended up in the forests around the US-Mexico border. Attempts to eradicate them failed and a huge wall has been built to keep them out of the USA, with nightly airstrikes launched against them. Travel between the Mexico and the US is now extremely dangerous and limited, but some desperate people still choose to take the unofficial route through the Infected Zone where the aliens are concentrated. Having lost their passports, Andrew and Samantha have no choice but to try this route in order to get back to America.
Rather like Cloverfield, Monsters did divide opinion on release and I can fully understand why some people thought it rather boring. It certainly proceeds at a very languid pace (it's over 30 minutes before the pair set off into the Infected Zone and a further 25 before they are left alone). There's also no real action to speak of. The monsters are rarely seen and, up until the ending, there is nothing even approaching a "monster" attack. If you are lured into watching this film by the title, and expect something akin to a Godzilla movie, then you are going to be sorely disappointed.
Take it on its own merits, though, and you will find a gripping tale about two people slowly discovering what's really important to them... No! Wait! Come back! That description makes it sound rather worthy and dull, or some sort of cack-handed life-affirming rom-com. It's not. True, it's an acquired taste - the lack of action will not suit everyone - but it's an incredibly atmospheric story. Despite the lack of action, despite the relative lack of monsters, I was absolutely gripped by this simple tale. It's hard to know why, because if you try and explain Monsters it's almost impossible to capture just why it is so good. But trust me; if you give it a fair crack of the whip and shift your mindset away from big Hollywood special effects blockbuster to low-budget Brit flick, then you will uncover something special.
The photography and direction on this film is simply superb. The film is full of bleached, washed out colours which give a real sterile, unwelcoming feel not just to the quarantined zone, but to the world in general. Lighting and scenery are used to incredible dramatic effect. Some might complain that the film is nothing but a sequence of "arty shots", but Edwards' stark imagery is an essential part of establishing atmosphere. Ruined buildings stand starkly on hilltops, entire towns are deserted and the world generally has gone to hell. Sure, this vision of a near-dystopian future has been done dozens of times before, but rarely has it been used so effectively and been as instantly recognisable as something our own world could be in just a few years time.
Characters and character development are also well integrated into the film. The two central characters, Andrew and Samantha initially look as though they are going to be rather standard fare. He is a selfish photographer, out near the infected zone to try and get a photograph of the monsters that will earn him big money and establish his reputation - the only two things he really cares about. She is the rich daughter of Andrew's current employer who is having some personal issues with her stifling lifestyle.
Now, at this point, you are probably thinking "Oh. How predictable. They'll hate each other at first before slowly coming to respect each other and finally falling in love." I know you're thinking that, because that's exactly what I thought, too. But no. Or rather, yes. Sort of. Sure, that general character arc occurs, but it's handled so well by both actors and director that you scarcely recognise it as being the clichéd approach we are expecting. It's done subtly and gradually, and it's only right at the end that you realise your initial prediction was actually correct; by which point, you no longer care.
It's helped by the fact that the two main actors, Scootch McNairy and Whitney Able are a deeply likeable pair. They have a very natural way, they act as if they are just "ordinary people" and thanks to their subtle, underplayed performances, you completely believe in their characters. There is also a very strong and easy-going sense of chemistry between the pair (probably helped by the fact they are married in real life) which doesn't hurt.
Apart from the languid pace which may deter some, the only other real criticism comes from the ending, which is incredibly abrupt and will leave people scratching their heads and going "HUH?!" I'm all for open endings that make the viewer think, but this took "open" to whole new levels, rendering it somewhat anti-climactic after the superb atmosphere established by the rest of the film.
Monsters is very much one of those Marmite films and I really think you need to watch it for yourself to decide. Personally, I have no hesitate giving it four stars, but I've spoken to other people who would hesitate to give it one. Like the USA depicted in this film, it is divided and the only way to find out which side of the wall you stand on is to give it a go.
Director: Gareth Edwards
Running time: approx. 94 minutes
(c) Copyright SWSt 2013
Monsters is a fairly low budget sci-fi tale depicting the consequences of mans first contact with alien life as seen through the eyes of a roving reporter who is trying to break a big story.
Set in the near future, a large area of land between America and Mexico has been quarrantined off after a Nasa probe into the deepest, darkest regions of space returned to Earth carrying some kind of alien spore. This spore infected the local population of animals and plant life creating some very bizarre mutations and now many 'alien' creatures roam the Quarrantine zone causing much mischief and mahem to those who live on its borders. After one paticular attack, a young reporter named Kaulder is attempting to get the inside scoop when he is contacted by his Editor. His daughter is trapped in the area and he wants Kaulder to escort her back to the United States and keep her safe from harm. But when their passports are stolen, the pair are left with no way of getting back across the border by conventional means and find themselves relying on the locals to help them cross the infected zone; something which proves to be a very dangerous under-taking!
This is a road-movie but of a kind that has rarely been seen or done before. Much has been made of the fact that you see little of the monsters until very close to the end, a la Cloverfield, but really the film is not directly about them. It is more about the dynamics of the two main characters' relationship as they progress along their journey home and about the manner in which the U.S have dealt with the infection by building an enormous wall, the biggest ever man-made structure, in order to keep the creatures out and by bombing the area all along the quarrantine zone quite heavily!
Many people have said there is a hidden subtext here to do with Immigration in the U.S and real-life border control and I can kind of see this. But for me personally, what makes Monsters so great is that it is something refreshing, something different and not just another man-vs-monster pic of the sort that we have seen done so many times before with varying results. It tries, and succeeds, to stand out from the crowd and is both engaging and highly enjoyable to watch!
Just don't go into this expecting lots of action and plenty of monster shots because this really ISN'T that kind of movie.
This is the story about a Journalist - Kaulder and his boss's daughter, Samantha (Sam) who are stuck in Mexico following an unknown event which has given rise to an influx of huge beings that reek havoc on the human race. Sounds action-packed, thrilling and scary. Think again!! I recall maybe seeing the monsters a total of 5 or 6 times throughout the entire movie.
The story comprises their journey through the infected exclusion zone so that Kaulder can bring Sam home safe to her father and her fiance. There is a love story element which involves Sam, for unknown reasons not being too bothered about getting married and developing a soft spot for Kaulder along the way.
The action is as unexplained and minimal as the reasoning behind both of their character's back stories. It comprises a few moments of intense noises being bellowed by the monsters followed a brief attack on their guide party through the infection zone.
The monsters are very convincing in terms of CGI, but not knowing why they are there simply frustrates and bemuses. I know the unknown is perhaps more scary but the ambiguity of the entire film kept me wondering 'had I missed several prequels when this was all explained?'
I would not rate this film very highly at all and suggest that even a more cheesy Spielberg action film would easy amuse me ten fold.
(FILM ONLY REVIEW)
I came to this movie with not many preconceptions since I knew very little about it. I did know that it was critically acclaimed and that it had been compared to 'Cloverfield' and 'District 9' two films I have seen and enjoyed so I was at the very least intrigued to see what all the fuss was about.
In many ways 'Monsters' might well represent the future of film in an increasingly competitive market under pressure from pirated copies and illegal downloads which the big studio at least is severely denting their profits. In making 'Monsters' young British director and writer Gareth Edwards has proved that you can make an intelligent, CGI packed sci-fi film that looks and sound good using only a few bits of cardboard and some sticky back plastic...well maybe that's a slight exaggeration but with a budget of less than a million dollars we are talking very low budget for a movie of this type and certainly it wouldn't even cover the acting fees of one of the supporting cast of any Hollywood blockbuster.
The film is set in the near future a time after 'first contact' has taken place. Six years earlier a NASA probe that was launched to look for alien life on one of Jupiter's moon on return crash lands in the jungles of Central America. Soon the land is overrun with alien creatures. In an effort to control the spread of the aliens the US and Mexican governments declare a large part of Mexico as an 'Infected Zone'. It is an ongoing struggle to contain the creatures to this area. In the middle of all this an American photo journalist Andrew Kaulder reluctantly agrees to help a young woman tourist Samantha Wynden who is also the daughter of the magazine he works for to leave the threatened part of Mexico and reach the safety of the US border. Since the coastal town they are in is about to be blockaded later the next day they have to board last ferry leaving of for the US at 7 am that morning, but not all goes to plan.
THE CAST & DETAILS
Samantha Wynden.... Whitney Able
Andrew Kaulder ....Scott McNairy
Run time : 94min
UK certificate: 12A
The film is an excellent example of what can be achieved on a small budget using the up to date CGI technology that is fast becoming available to all filmmakers and more importantly an imaginative story and creative direction. The look of the movie belies its modest expenditure. It mostly filmed by a small crew consisting of only four people using hand held cameras on location in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize the special effect later being added in a London. Partly through budget constraint and partly to achieve an ultra realistic quality to the story all the cast comprises of only two professional actors in the lead roles with all the others being people that the filmmakers co-opted on the way. Of course this isn't new the Italian neorealist filmmakers in the 40's and 50's like Rossellini and De Sica or more recently Ken Loach used this same method of making films to extract the essential honesty of the stories from ordinary people in the roles. The theory works and the performances on show have that honest quality to them that is very difficult to get from an experienced actor. Much of the dialogue is apparently ad-libbed which also add to the naturalistic style of the film. The two lead actors are excellent in their roles Scott Mcnairy especially giving a convincing performance as the slightly jaded journalist paid to take pictures of the effects of the aliens. Neither of the lead characters are particularly sympathetic, to begin with Samantha being a spoil rich daddy's girl, (what is she doing on holiday in such a dangerous area of Mexico?) and Kaulder is arrogant and smug but as the film progresses we gradually warm to them.
Although the film was widely marketed as a sci-fi 'monster' movie in the mould 'Cloverfield' it simply isn't that at all. The monsters are in the background, simply a backdrop for a part romance, part road movie, if you can have a road movie set mostly on a river. Many coming to see this film with expectations of the Hollywood style monster sci-fi blockbuster will be disappointed, this is better than that. The two central character growing relationship is dealt with sensitively and with measured pace. We find out they both have baggage, she engaged to be married to a man she doesn't love and he with a young child who doesn't know him as his father. There are some genuinely moving scenes as both these scenarios are explored in the course of the story.
Apart from the central love story the film is also an obvious satire of US perspectives on immigration, just like 'District 9' was commenting on apartheid. In the story the US have built a huge wall, the 'largest man made structure ever built' along its border with Mexico to keep the unwanted 'aliens' out of it territory... sounds familiar! The political points being made are obvious but still worth making. There are powerful visual of the destruction that both the monsters and the US air raids have wrecked on the infected towns and as always there are innocent casualties. The film makes the point that even in these tragic circumstances images of war and death are yet another commodity that is bought and sold for profit.
Overall this is a very interesting film, with great production values despite its restricted budget, but it's not perfect. The visual and audio landscape is excellent many of the scenes of the river had the same eerie quality that Coppola and Herzog instilled into 'Apocalypse Now' and 'Fitzcarraldo' respectively, praise indeed. However what lets the film down slightly is the overall story arc. The film is full of tension skilfully built up but in the end fails to deliver on some levels.
And finally what of the monsters? Well I'm not giving much away by saying that all good aliens need tentacles and we have abundance here. They are not the most sophisticated or scary film monsters ever but they are vividly brought to life on screen and are quite beautiful to look at especially in the last few scenes.
So we have an excellent debut by a bright new director, let's hope that the money that will inevitably be thrown at him by big studios for his next project won't spoil his inventiveness and creativity.
'Monsters' can be bought from Amazon UK for £5.00 with free delivery at the time this review was written.
Run-Time - 94 minutes
Awards- BAFTA nominations
Just as music went through a digital revolution, film will too, 90% of all music downloaded online now stolen and so the record companies unclear how to proceed to maintain a profitable model, especially after Spotify all but closed down this week, their method of legally giving away free music and hoping to make the money back in advertising failing miserable, a fete that awaits Hollywood for the movie DVD. Once the high street stores of HMV and Blockbusters close down all movies will be downloaded online and that means 90% of those will probably be pirated. In the music industry they can just about absorb that loss if they cut their cloth accordingly but films cost millions to make and so no way they can continue with that DVD rental method that is so open to counterfeit. So a new and radically cheaper filmmaking method is required, especially for those huge action movies, and a rather excellent young British filmmaker by the name of Gareth Edwards may have the solution. 'Monsters' is the worlds first low budget big screen CGI action movie, looking and sounding fabulous on just an $800,000 budget, most of that spent on publicity when he realised he had something special on his hands. All of the special effects were done with off the shelf software and with just two paid actors on board and the use of just two $8400 cameras from Vertigo Films, Edwards has produced the best pound-for-pound film of 2010. This guy is a serious talent and his movie is impressive.
Shot entirely on location in Central America it was very much guerrilla filmmaking, Edwards and his two stars, Whitney Able and Scott McNairy, turning up without permits and shanghaiing locals to be in the film, which works surprisingly well. What ever location they chose then those guys and girls would be in the film. If three people can make a movie this good without a script, storyboard or make up van in sight then there is no excuse for Transformers 3 anymore seems to be the message from Monsters.
Whitney Able....Samantha Wynden
Scott McNairy....Andrew Kaulder
Set in the very near future....
Six years after a NASA probe returns from Jupiter's third moon 'Europa', its cargo has contaminated large swathes of Mexico and the West Coast of America with an alien fungus, giant squid like creatures growing from it, vast areas quarantined behind huge concrete walls. The military are battling to stop the spread in a losing battle as the 100ft tall monsters move south and east.
Down in South America an irritable and somewhat cynical photojournalist, Andrew Kaulder (Scott McNairy) is hired to pick up a traumatised American tourist, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), who narrowly escapes an attack by the monsters in Belize, well outside of the infected zone. When the train to the ferry port that will take them back to America breaks down they jump off and make their own way to the sea, a good chance for Andy to take some pictures and meet the locals.
Arriving just in time for the last ferry departing the next day before the military close down the port they book on the boat at extortionate 'American' rates, thoroughly fleeced. But Kaulder gets drunk after a misunderstanding with his romantic intentions for Sam and his passport stolen, meaning they don't get on the boat. The only option now is to hand over yet more money to a fixer and be smuggled through the infected zone, their journey to be chaperoned by some Central American guerrillas. If they don't take the extremely risky option they will be trapped down south for six more months..
Think Cloverfield meets Jurassic Park and your not far off, but this not a B-Movie horror in the true sense of the word, certainly not just about the monsters. Some have read in subliminal messages and comment on Mexican immigration whilst others rocked up expecting Godzilla versus King Kong, certainly not that. The fact you rarely see the monsters hints that this is all about the suggested threat of the invaders, where this film really works well. Its real impact is, like District 9, that contemporary humans have got used to coexisting with the first aliens to live on Earth and they share the same environment, to great visual effect, before setting about destroying them like we do with anything that threatens our selfish western ways.
Although the critics generally liked it the audience reaction was extremely mixed, clearly a big chunk of them expecting a very different movie the publicity tended to push to maximise its audience demographic and so return. It has clearly borrowed heavily from the District 9 concept movie formula that proved extremely successful on putting aliens in modern day human environments but not being too cliché and corny with that context, dare I say intelligent, both films shaping the sci-fi genre for the future, just as Ridley Scott's Alien and Kubriks 2001 did. This is a pioneer movie and should be watched and respected for that fact alone, Gareth Edwards our very own George Lucas, maybe?
Yes the plot meanders but the impact never does, a visually smart and creative experience from the very first frame, the average acting and tropical locations adding that extra realism. It just looks great and you can't believe it was made for less than one million bucks. The monsters are perhaps 'gravitationally challenged' and unrealistic but again that's not the point and so they look even more convincing because of those multi-layers. Some critics have said that the odd tentacle here and glowing bit there doesn't constitute serious sci-fi but when you see and experience this you will quickly disagree and see it has deeper textures than that and hopefully buy into it. The romance bit isn't really needed and there are some subtitles, but the films only negatives. The pure imagination here makes this a must see rental, just like District 9 was. Well done British filmmaking in a genre we have neglected of late.
The Guardian - "One of the most assured and impressive feature debuts in recent years"
The Seattle Times - "Monsters is part immigration parable, part war allegory with a dose of It Happened One Night and The African Queen tossed in"
The Michigan Gazette - "IIntelligent sci-fi with a monster-sized heart".
Imdb.com - 6.5 out of 10.0 (17,787 votes)
Rottentomatos.com - 71% Critics approval rating (users 49%)
Metacritic.com - 63% Critics approval rating (users 51%)
= = = = Special Features = = = =
Gareth Edwards and the cast take us through on just how they did it.
*Behind the Scenes*
We get to see just how guerrilla this film was, the tag line being '5 countries, 4 crew and 2 actors...'
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