July 4, 2011

We’re All Dead! Marathon: Monsters (Gareth Edwards)

Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able live in a world of Monsters.

No post-apocalyptic marathon is complete without at least one alien or monster movie. It’s not enough for us to destroy ourselves with a virus or nuclear catastrophe. Let’s bring in some nasty-looking creatures that threaten our very existence. Gareth Edwards’ Monsters offers a prime example of this type of situation. The threat hasn’t covered the entire world yet, but it threatens to expand further.

Six years earlier, a strange probe from Jupiter’s moon of Europa landed on Earth carrying massive aliens. These octopus-like creatures have wreaked serious havoc in the recent years in Mexico and the southwest U.S. The authorities separated a large infected zone behind a large wall to contain the monsters, but its success is questionable. On the edge of the safe zone, photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is hired by the father of Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) to escort her back to the States. More focused on taking a valuable picture than this job, he ineptly ruins her chances for an easy boat trip. This sends the duo into the infected zone for a more dangerous journey through the wasteland.

Director Gareth Edwards shot the entire picture on location in Mexico and other countries in Central America, and this makes the landscape feel realistic. With one rare shot of the giant wall, the digital effects interact well with the environment, which is a surprise given the $800,000 budget. Extra touches like brief glimpses of devastated buildings and military vehicles add weight to the post-war setting. The infected zones are populated by a few surviving locals trying to stay alive and avoid the monsters. The military has basically given up this area and is focusing on stopping further expansion. Shot beautifully by Edwards in his first feature film, the sparse, isolated environment is the best aspect of this movie.

Sam is pretty self-involved and focused on getting a photo, and his ridiculous gaffe makes their lives difficult. Kaulder's intentions are good, so the issues relate more to incompetence than bad aims. On the other hand, Sam is both cute and friendly, which makes her possible attraction to him baffling. She has a fiance in the states and seems happy, but this type of dangerous situation can bring even unlikely people together. The actors improvise much of the dialogue, which makes the story feel more like an indie romance than a sci-fi movie. This approach generally works, though a few scenes drag a bit while the characters quietly try to make a connection. Also, McNairy and Able are a couple in real life, which makes sense but wasn't clear to me until I watched the extra features.

Andrew Kaulder (Scott McNairy) is on a search for Monsters in Gareth Edwards' film.

I’m not sure the quest is compelling, but it’s hard to argue with the old standard of finding a way home. In this case, the obstacles are gigantic creatures with large tentacles that appear periodically to raise havoc. In one eerie sequence, a monster grabs a pick-up truck holding a few unfortunate guys and violently throws it in a tree. Horror fans be warned: This is not a frenetic, non-stop action movie with constant attacks from the aliens. Instead, Edwards focuses more on the characters and the environment than cheap scares. When we see the monsters, they’re often hanging on the edges of the screen or just out of our reach. This choice leaves the feeling that a lot more is happening than what we’re seeing in front of the main characters.

Monsters opens with a battle scene reminiscent of Cloverfield that gives us striking glimpses of the monster battling an army unit. Shot in the dark and including just brief flashes of light, this conflict isn’t really understandable until the end of the movie. It’s an energetic start that’s actually a lot more slow-moving than we might expect from this opening. The other big moment shows Kaulder and Sam taking a break at an empty gas station. In a harrowing moment, a monster arrives and traps Sam inside the convenience store. As the tentacles move around inside the room, she hides in the corner, terrified that this is the end. What’s intriguing about this scene is its conclusion, which involves a surprising mating ritual between this monster and another of its kind. Ignoring Sam and Kaulder, they don’t seem interested in attacking the duo. This scene raises questions about the true nature of the beasts and who actually is the aggressor in this scenario.

A large chunk of Mexico becomes an infected zone in Gareth Edwards' Monsters.

This story takes place in Mexico and raises connections between this situation and the immigration issues. There’s no need for Edwards to overplay this theme, and I’m not sure he even intended to connect this story’s themes to that controversial subject. However, watching characters bypass a big wall and enter the “infected zone” calls to mind some conservatives’ feelings about what’s needed to stem illegal immigration. On a larger scale, you could also connect the military’s treatment of the monsters with the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. and other countries are battling “the other” with questionable aims. Thankfully, all of these themes lurk under the surface and never interfere with the main story.

Monsters is shot like a low-budget indie romance and incorporates stunning outdoor footage as Sam and Kaulder travel the countryside. Despite the title, the monsters are actually secondary to the interactions between the two leads. However, their presence hangs over every scene, especially those presenting devastated structures. There are a few dry spots, but the overall approach works really well. It’s a good choice if you’re looking for an alternative to the typical indie horror film.

Other Marathon Reviews

The Quiet Earth
The Book of Eli
Carriers
The Postman
On the Beach

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