Overlooked Movie Monday: Monsters

by Phil Fava on March 21, 2011

in Columns,Overlooked Movie Monday

IMDb.com can, at times, be custodian to some of the most depressing message boards on all of the Internet.

Right now, there are posts written by adults disparaging today’s overlooked movie because its poster was misleading and they prefer to be “teached,” among other things, by the movies they watch.

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?

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Xavier March 21, 2011 at 1:51 pm

I feel like I need to give this one a watch now, great article. I agree with you 100% about District 9 I thought that film was terrible the first 20 mins had me even though the allegory was pretty obvious and obtrusive, but then it turned a nasty corner, became the fly for 10-15 mins and then devolved into every action movie you’ve ever seen with some scenes stretching the believability of the situations way too far, some of which might have been ok had the film not gone for the gritty documentary style in the first 20 mins and then incomprehensibly abandoned it completely for the rest of the film.

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2 Phil Fava March 21, 2011 at 3:53 pm

We are as like-minded as they come on “District 9,” Xavier. Be sure to report back your reaction to this one; I’m interested to see how much we agree.

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3 Xavier March 21, 2011 at 5:21 pm

You’ve colored me intrigued but I’m not likely to get to the one until at least friday night

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4 Trey Hock March 21, 2011 at 8:40 pm

Phil and Xavier – You are both my BFFs for your vitriolic criticism of “District 9,” which I was no fan of. Here’s my hateful review of “D9.”

As for “Monsters” it’s imperfect but thoroughly entertaining. So much is done with very little, and definitely deserved more attention.

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5 Elijah March 28, 2011 at 8:28 am

I respectfully disagree with you on this one. I got the terrible burden of watching this last weekend and was nothing short of bored throughout the film. The lead characters were stiff and the dialogue was poorly written. The pacing made the movie seem to take 4 hours to painfully pass by. The CGI was interesting as was the premise and the use of extraneous noises rather than in your face sci-fi with the aliens. However, the missing plot points were gapingly wide and I would put this in the bottom 3 of alien movies.

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6 Phil Fava March 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm

It’s a pretty restrictively subjective area of debate, but it’s important to know that the dialogue was improvised and there was no actual script, so saying it was poorly written is just factually inaccurate. But that’s a technicality. What specifically about the dialogue and performances did you find lacking? They struck me as highly authentic and pretty nuanced.

I’m not sure what you mean by “missing plot points,” though. What didn’t add up or what did you feel was left unexplained?

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7 Elijah March 29, 2011 at 8:59 am

Well, this is just one man’s opinion, but I felt the acting was very stiff and akward. I didn’t think the “couple” had any kind of good chemistry together and again seemed akward in their interactions. I didn’t know that it wasn’t scripted but improvised, so I apologize for the foot in my mouth (doesn’t taste good), but still I think a script may have been better.

The plot points I felt were missing was mostly back story “stuff” and the aliens, which I realize were more of a back drop for the real story of the relationship, but they could have done more or explained a little better the situation with the aliens as well as a little more background information regarding the 2 main characters. I also felt the plot points leading up to their journey through the infected area were a little weak.

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