Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 6, 2010, with later edits
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Monsters is not a great film, but it is a good one, and the only reasons I might not buy it on DVD is it's a low-profile film that won't attract much attention and will likely be priced higher than average, and it is likely to show up on Netflix streaming rather quickly. I've already watched it twice, and in spite of a few flaws I was more impressed the second time around. I'll get to the negatives later, but for now I want to give praise to Gareth Edwards, who not only wrote the screenplay and directed, he also acted as his own director of photography and cameraman, as well as creating the production design and visual effects. I've read that the budget was just $15,000, but I will bet that was just for film, equipment rentals, minimal payments to non-actor background players, agreements with some Central American military for fly-overs of planes and helicopters, as well as quite a bit of signage. Edwards had to have done the effects on his own computers, so I am sure that budget does not include any compensation for his time and efforts in that regard, and it is possible the main actors were working on spec as well.
I think I have an eclectic taste in films. Sometimes I'm impressed with big-budget, popular productions, other times I like less commercial fare. I don't base my opinions on what other people are saying, just on my own perceptions. I like simple and direct, and Monsters is so simple it borders on minimalism. I'm not sure if the title was a mistake by the filmmaker, or whether he was attempting a subtle commentary on human nature. There is only one time in the entire movie when the word monster is used, and it was not even in dialogue but rather a banner glimpsed on a television screen. All other times throughout the film, from the opening text prologue, captions in television news reports, various signs seen along the protagonists' journey, as well as in dialogue, the word used to describe the extra-terrestrials is "creatures."
Oh yeah, I guess I should have mentioned what the film is about. Six years prior to the opening scenes, a space probe returning to Earth with the first evidence of life off planet crashes on re-entry in Mexico. Shortly thereafter, new life forms begin to emerge from the jungle, and the northern half of Mexico is quarantined as an "Infected Zone." The creatures are mainly nocturnal, and they have been witnessed to migrate from rivers to the forested mountains on a yearly basis since then. No one has been able to get close enough to study them properly, the main efforts have been to contain them in as small an area as possible. Scoot McNairy portrays Andrew Kaulder, a photo-journalist who has been seeking pictures of the elusive creatures and their victims for several years. His publisher is willing to pay a large fee for photos of people, especially children, killed by the creatures. Whitney Able is Samantha Wynden, the daughter of Kaulder's employer. What she is doing in Mexico is never explained, although there are several hints throughout that leads me to suspect she was attempting to hide from both her father and her fiance. It is apparent she is not that enthusiastic about returning to her life in the US, but Kaulder is assigned to escort her to the Gulf coast in order to book boat passage back to Texas.
Apparently the Infected Zone is also a no-fly zone, or else this is one of several instances where the viewer must suspend disbelief. That does seem the most logical mode of travel out of the region, but it is never mentioned why they don't go that route. Instead, they take a train towards the coast, but it is stopped by rail damage short of the destination. They must resort to bus and hitchhiking to make it the rest of the way. They get to the port just prior to its close due to the upcoming migration time for the creatures, but through an unfortunate circumstance they lose their money and passports. However, a sacrifice on Samantha's part does get them a guide and armed protection for a trek by land through the Infected Zone. They eventually make it back to Texas, only to find the creatures have breeched the massive wall built on the US side of the Rio Grande. I won't go into any more detail about the plot than that.
If you are a science fiction fan who demands elaborate special effects, massive sets and high profile actors in order to enjoy a film, then please do not bother with this one. If you like subtlety over bombast, then you might enjoy it. I do need to point out another thing about the irony of the title. The extra-terrestrials are featured in less than ten minutes of screen time, so don't expect a lot of action. The rest of the time they are just talked about or glimpsed in news coverage on TV, painted murals on buildings, and even a children's cartoon show seen in the background. This is more of a character drama about two displaced people than it is about the creatures, although if there is a sequel we might get to learn more about them. This is one of the few times I would welcome another film, since by the end of this one I cared enough about the characters to want to know what happens to them after the final scene. And I should point out that if you are observant you will realize that the final scene is actually the first one you see in the film.
As I've already said this is a character piece. Both Andrew and Sam have emotional turmoil in their life. He has a son from a previous short-term fling, and the mother will not let the boy know that Andrew is his father. Sam is conflicted about her upcoming marriage, unsure if she is ready for the affluent but complacent life that is waiting for her if she goes through with it. It is a very good example of how self-centered most people are. No matter what sensational events are going on in the world around them, a lot of people still only think about their own petty problems. The best thing about this, however, is that both McNairy and Able are believable in these roles, totally realistic and sympathetic. They are not stupid horror film foils, all of their words and actions resonate with truth, and much is revealed from just the right facial expressions when words would be superfluous. I would be remiss if I didn't also mention another good but subtle part of the film, the score by newcomer Jon Hopkins. It never overwhelms a scene but does provide the perfect mood.
About those flaws I mentioned earlier? There really are only two. The first is that some of the photography, especially the night scenes, is poor. In the daylight Edwards does a very good job, and there is some breath-taking scenery throughout. However, I think his low budget forced certain limitations. In order for the night scenes to look authentic he couldn't do any ambient lighting like most Hollywood productions would use. That and the fact that he probably used rental cameras and low grade film caused a lot of those scenes to be dark and very grainy. It would have been better if he could have used HD-Video rather than film. Of course, this might be improved for DVD release, so I'll be interested in seeing this again at that time. His other problem was one of geography. This is supposed to be taking place in northern Mexico, which is mountainous in certain areas but very desert-like. Most of the filming was done in Costa Rica and Belize, which is mainly jungle. Something our protagonists discover, supposedly just south of the Rio Grande, would not be in that location unless this is in an alternate universe. They stumble across the ruins of what is most likely a Mayan (or maybe Toltec) pyramid, so that was probably in one of the Belize locations. To imply that such a structure is anywhere near the Texas border is ludicrous. Add to that the fact that he couldn't do research and have Kaulder mention a real highway number in the region of where they supposedly are in Texas does not make sense. Google Maps, man!
[Edited comment: On second thought, I am sure that Edwards knows that pyramid is out of place. Perhaps he meant it as a symbolic metaphor, juxtaposing the old world with the new, since Andrew and Sam are standing atop the pyramid when they first see the new wall built on the US side of the river.]
At the current time (11/05/10), this film is in very limited release. It has been screened at various film festivals throughout the year and got its first theatrical release in Russia about a month ago. It opened in select theaters on 10/29, but for me it would mean a drive of 100 miles to see it in either Austin or Dallas, where it is showing on just one screen in each city, and it's not even in Houston now even though that has a larger population than the other two. I rented it through Amazon's Video on Demand service. The first time, a couple of weeks ago, it was priced at $9.99, but I had a gift certificate. Now they are offering it for $6.99, but still for just a two day rental, not for permanent sale. I have only used iTunes on a couple of occasions, but when I checked they were also offering it for rental at $9.99. I think it is unlikely that it will come to a theater in my town, and unless you live in a large city the same will probably apply unless it does fantastic business and gets great reviews, then it might be rolled out to many more theaters. For now, check this page for info on release dates.
I'll end this with a speculation. Could the title actually refer to the humans rather than the creatures? Most every reaction towards the creatures is the typical human one of shoot first and ask questions later. Humanity is at fault for taking these beings from their natural environment, and it seems that everything the creatures are doing is just a matter of their instinct for survival. I won't go into detail, but it is possible that their killing of humans is inadvertent, as it seems that each time a confrontation is shown the creatures appear to be merely attracted to a light source. I won't tell you why that is significant, but it is. You'll just have to see the film in order to understand my opinion on this. So, in conclusion, this is an interesting film made on a very low budget, which is encouraging to me due to so many large budget films being made that interest me none at all. Kudos to Edwards and crew for money well spent.
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