EXPECTATIONS: I've only read brief rumblings about Monsters across the internet, and every single comment seems to end with "BUT IT LOOKS SOOOOO AWESOME!" The idea of taking two recent and distinct sci-fi movies (Cloverfield and District 9), cramming them both into a blender and then force-feeding the result to the audience sounds like it might be a fun ride. I just hope the film's incredibly low budget ($15,000 over a 3-week shoot in Mexico) doesn't mean skimping on things like creature effects and explosions. Otherwise, what's the fucking point?
REALITY: Monsters is what happens when you take everything unique and thought-provoking about the science fiction and horror genres and throw it all out the window because you can't afford any of it. I can't tell you how many times I've heard film students say things like "I've got this great idea for a sci-fi movie, but building sets is gonna be too expensive. That's okay, I'll just make the characters really interesting!" Mind you, lofty ideas and special effects don't have to be expensive; they just have to be good. This concept has apparently never occurred to writer/director/cameraman/effects artist Gareth Edwards.
Monsters takes place years after a space probe returns to Earth infected with samples of alien life forms. In the years since, the aliens have grown, evolved, and effectively destroyed northern Mexico. As the alien attacks get worse, the government decides to completely quarantine the northern half of the country. The story involves a photojournalist named Andrew (Scoot McNairy; Yes, someone named their child Scoot) being tasked with escorting his boss' daughter Sam (Whitney Able) back into Texas before the quarantine begins. Along the way, they encounter ... can you guess? Yes, it's monsters! Well, actually they're aliens, but it's pretty obvious why they couldn't call the movie Aliens. James Cameron would've thrown a shit fit.
Painted backgrounds depicting giant squid monsters fighting off helicopters and tanks are not as exciting as actual scenes depicting giant squid monsters fighting off helicopters and tanks.
And you know what? So would I. I'm glad Monsters isn't called Aliens. It doesn't deserve to share titles with The Best Movie Ever Made about Space Marines Shooting Penis Monsters. It deserves to wind up stuck on the bottom shelf with Asylum remakes and horror sequels ending with any number larger than 3. Monsters is the kind of movie you'd see at a student film festival. It's boring, pretentious, and substitutes "character drama" for the very genre conventions people want to see in the first place.
The first, and most glaring, problem is that for a movie titled Monsters, the actual monsters are alarmingly scarce. We see brief glimpses of flying squid monsters on TVs, and the end features the most anticlimactic creature attack ever committed to film, but otherwise Monsters is mostly about two people taking a scenic tour through Mexico. Someone ought to remind Gareth Edwards that it's okay to put monsters in your monster movie. In fact, it's downright essential. If it's because money was tight and Edwards only had so much time to fuck around in Adobe AfterEffects, then maybe he should've thought about that before selling us a movie about giant squid monsters.
I could have possibly forgiven this if the rest of the movie held any water. Unfortunately, in trying so hard to seem arty and innovative, it forgets to do any of the things that other inexpensive horror movies managed to figure out with even less money. You know, John Carpenter's first movie had aliens in it, and they were played by goddamn beach balls. THX-1138 was about Robert Duvall running around in a parking garage. The best movie of last year starred Sam Rockwell as every single character. Making a movie on a miniscule budget means being creative about how to convey the ideas in your movie, not roundly ignoring them because they're too expensive. This is something Gareth Edwards needs to learn if he's going to try this little experiment of his again.
Aw, if only we'd been here a little earlier, we could have actually witness this carnage taking place.So once Edwards decided he was going to ignore the prospect of adding monsters to his monster movie, one would think that this might free him up to spend time on other things; social commentary, for one. Not so much, as it turns out. Monsters hints at a comment on the illegal immigration issue between the US and Mexico, but that winds up being more of a punchline than any kind of actual commentary. When our "heroes" make it to the US border, they're met by a 100-foot wall as far as the eye can see. "It's the future, you see, because right now all we have is a chain link fence! Get ready, because a giant wall visible from space is totally a possibility!"
And by the time these two get to the border, do they have to sneak past armored border patrol guards? Do they have to bribe a couple soldiers to let them in without passports? Do they have to rush across the border during a monster attack? No, it turns out to be a lot simpler than that. You might call it anticlimactic. You might call it REALLY anticlimactic. You might even say they just walk across the border without any trouble. In fact, that's exactly what happens. Nobody stops them. Nobody is even there to stop them. That's not social commentary, that's just what happens every day in Texas.
This is the other thing about Monsters that drives me fucking crazy: Nothing ever happens. At every moment in the story where any other movie would have dropped an action scene or a pivotal plot point, Monsters lets these moments skate right on by without even a wink. The big action scene halfway through the movie, in which our heroes' escort gets obliterated by monsters, happens in the blink of an eye. One minute they're on the road to the US/Mexico border, and the next minute everyone but our heroes is dead and they're hiking through the wilderness. That's the height of action in this movie. Otherwise, there are no monsters and nothing really happens. If there were a play mode in Resident Evil 4 that removed all the zombies and interesting things, that game would be a lot like Monsters.
But maybe I'm being too harsh on this movie. After all, it supposedly cost only $15,000. Clerks cost twice that much, and that movie looks like ass. That Monsters looks even half as good as it does is nothing short of a miracle. The camera work is really quite impressive; I just wish it could've been used in the service of a better story with more monsters. $15,000 only gets you so far, after all. Actually, you know what else you could get for $15,000? A 3-week vacation in Mexico.
...Fuck this movie.
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