IMDb.com can, at times, be custodian to some of the most depressing message boards on all of the Internet.
Worse, still, are the ubiquitous dismissals of people who take films too seriously by those purporting to take them just seriously enough (though apparently not seriously enough to appraise them on their own terms), and all the cheerleading for the cause of cookie-cutter entertainment options that spreads henceforth.
Somebody actually at one point lamented this film’s dissimilarities to “Independence Day,” to give you a more general idea of the prevailing school of thought on this issue.
“Monsters,” written and directed by Gareth Edwards, starring Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, accomplishes a great deal within an hour and a half. As a work of art, it stands in virtual solitude as a compelling, intimate achievement boding an astonishing breadth of tone and craftsmanship. As a symbol, it implicitly insists there’s hope yet for giant monster movies and that the quality of Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” needn’t be so naively branded an aberration beyond repeat.
Sure, films like “The Host” can pop up out of nowhere, evading the typical roadblocks of a foreign market and wind up with acclaim, and even the likes of “Cloverfield” (which I’ve not seen, and, as a fan of the genre, feel scarce desire to) can win over critics for the most part with an original enough concept and competent FX work.
But the real test of success lies past the gimmickry of self-inflated, pseudo-documentary pretensions and believable CGI, where human characters remain as engrossing as the visual effects are convincing, and the imagination put into the latter is rendered in full. Such is so evidently the case with “Monsters” that it’s a genuine palliative shock to the system if you’re harboring a bleak outlook on the current state of affairs for monsters in the movies.
As the film opens, we learn that a strange form of alien life has “infected” huge sections of northern Mexico as a result of a crashing NASA probe, and the US government has put the area under quarantine. Constantly bombarded by aerial attacks, the land route back into the states is littered with overturned vehicles and dead bodies, and the cries of the alien creatures (instantaneously and deliberately evoking whale sounds) ring out in the distance. A photojournalist named Andrew Kaulder (McNairy) who’s working south of the border is assigned to escort his boss’ daughter, Sam Wynden (Able), back into the United States through a veritable war zone.
Seeing the film for the first time with little background information, its amazingly successful convergence of styles almost came across as a fluke. Here’s a picture, after all, with two fantastically realistic and affecting performances at its center (not to mention a full roster of realistic performances occupying its every corner), handheld camerawork coupled with beautiful cinematography (the kind that practically negates visiting the places you’re being shown), and brilliantly executed CGI that barely makes sense, let alone registers in the context of such an ostensibly low-budget, personal vision.
But it was when I did a bit more research that every dormant nerd tendency in my psyche sprung to life and set off the kind of aforementioned optimism I’d not even considered for the genre. For starters, all the CGI in the film was done by its director, alone, and is documented proof that there’s no excuse for studios to pump out the FX mediocrity and sub-mediocrity they so often do.
That this is the guy chosen to direct the upcoming “Godzilla” reboot says a lot about Legendary Pictures (as if being behind “The Dark Knight” didn’t say enough), and indicates that there’s a real chance to make recompense for Roland Emmerich’s practical joke from 1998.
I wrote something a while back, around the time the “Clash of the Titans” remake was coming out, decrying shitty, uninteresting CGI in view of stop-motion, which is, to me (and probably many others), one of the greatest artistic developments in the history of cinema. I didn’t argue for its realism, but for how fun it is to watch (when done well), and how admirable the work is that goes into it. The same could be said of traditional animation.
But “Monsters” tells a very different, wholly redeeming story of the craftsmanship behind computer-generated imagery, particularly because it’s the product of one insanely talented individual toiling over shots for months and months in solitude, and because the creations yielded are so deeply satisfying to behold and so well measured in their utilization. Most of the time, it’s the “Jaws” strategy at work, and when we finally get a clear view of what we’re dealing with, it’s pretty spectacular.
The allegorical stuff pertaining to illegal immigration is present, but unintrusive, and actually unintentional on the part of Edwards. The fact that the film would stand equally well without it is what’s important, and separates it from the overrated didacticism of something like “District 9,” which, in my opinion, doesn’t even really work with its allegories so aggressively posited.
What everyone interested in the production of monster movies should look to for validation in this film is its overall construction, its personal sensibility, and its well-drawn human characters that make everything else worthwhile. As far as the technical aspects of special effects are concerned, it’s not just how well they’re executed in purely visual terms that’s the key, but how they’re regarded cinematically.
It is, after all, unusual for giant monsters to roam the countryside and demolish major cities, so if they’re being conveyed with the frivolity of a car chase, what’s the point?