My reviews often contain spoilers. So consider yourself warned.
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Monsters is more art house than grindhouse. The title is in fact a little misleading – while there are indeed “creatures” (as they are called) these leviathans take a backseat to the the main thrust of the story which focuses on a very human relationship. Kaulder (Scoot McNairy – love the name) and Sam (Whitney Able from All The Boys Love Mandy Lane) meet when Kaulder, a photographer for the magazine owned by Sam’s father, is appointed with the task of taking the boss’s daughter out of Mexico and across the border into America.
But this is not the same Mexico, nor the same world we know. Six years ago a NASA probe which had collected samples of alien lifeforms crashed over Central America and, well – Earth meet the Creatures – Creatures meet the Earth. The military maintains a strong presence in the “Infected Zones” and a wall has been erected around America (on the Mexican border, natch) to attempt to manage the aliens, which incubate on trees where they resemble a fungal growth that glows, but when fully developed are towering octopod looking “monsters.” They seem to be most active at certain times yearly, and usually at night.
Our travelers, no surprise, face many obstacles along the way, from a train that must turn around because the tracks have been damaged, to stolen passports, to authorities who must be bribed, to a boat engine that breaks down, to the biological warfare being used to combat the creatures and, of course, the constant threat of the creatures themselves.
Kaulder and Sam form an intimate bond, that while they never really discuss, is obvious. I read one review in which the critic wrote that Kaulder and Sam were so insufferable that he was hoping the monsters would squash them. I don’t understand that. These two behaved as people do – the characters were realized and dimensional. I give the script and the actors major kudos for that. They don’t just feel images who begin and end with the first frame and the fade to black.
So our twosome make their trek toward the great wall, all the while becoming more fond of each other, and all the more uncertain about what they will find, and what kind of lives they have to return to. I went into this movie knowing little about it. I had seen a few images, but had not watched the trailer and what I was expecting was another post-apocalyptic quasi-zombie teeth-gnashing, blood-spewing, “brutal” survival piece. And how wrong I was. This is a thoughtful, dignified and memorable experience – it is what Cloverfield could have been if it had brains and heart… and decent camerawork. Speaking of which – this film is gorgeously lensed and I was shocked to find that not only did it apparently cost $15,000 to make but that all of the cameras and equipment used were consumer grade technology. You would never guess it was such a low budget, especially not from the expert special effects which equalled, if not surpassed the stuff the big studios churn out. The writer and director, Gareth Edwards, has a background in Visual Effects and it shows. This is his first feature film, and that, too, shocked me, because man knows his shit. Seasoned directors rarely make films this good. I hope that Gareth’s talents continue to be recognized and appreciated and fostered.
Some have already complained that the film is too slow, that nothing happens, that they don’t show us enough of the creatures – well, I will tell you that I was never once bored, and I thought they showed just exactly enough, and really, the creatures are never not there. Every TV we see is broadcasting footage of their attacks, and in turn, the government’s attacks on them – there is even a children’s cartoon featuring animated monsters – there are murals of them on city walls, their corpses are seen smashed into buildings, tentacles appear and then withdraw back into the river – and we continually hear their mournful calls, which sound very much like whale songs.
Forget what I said about Cloverfield. This would be a great companion piece to The Mist, a tremendous double feature, the other side of the coin – Monsters is The Mist as optimist instead of pessimist, even if in the end, Monsters is just as heartbreaking. B+