Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Gareth Edwards' MONSTERS

Monsters.  Title makes one think of all sorts of big gnarly looking things, mostly out of movies and sometimes out of books and fairy tales (or if you're Guillermo del-Toro, everywhere).  Gareth Edwards' independent film, shot on a shoestring that at most was half a million and at smallest was fifteen grand(!), is not about the monsters so much as it's about two people wandering a landscape that is both beautiful and terrifying, lush with life and/or decaying with destruction of the (post?) apocalypse.  Edwards on an interview included with the DVD said that it's meant to be a metaphor for a post-terrorism environment.  This could be read.  It could also be read (somewhat more obviously) as a metaphor for immigration horror, and also the destruction of the planet.

As it is the film works best as one of those gobsmackingly interesting calling cards for someone who one's never heard of before- Edwards was a Visual effects man before embarking on this feature as writer/director/cinematographer/VFX/production designer guy, and he makes it one of those thrilling DIY feature along the lines of Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachi.  And besting El Mariachi (if not in super-dirt cheap budget than in bang-for-buck, it's a calling card that shows what you can do if you just have a good enough vision and the ingenuity to make images out of thin air.

His world of a post-alien environment (they've landed, creatures have risen, pretty basic set-up) is one of blown-out buildings and refugees, limited-to-no transportation and guerrillas being taken out quickly by perturbed 'monsters' in the forests.  There is also an "infected zone" but what people get infected with we're not sure.  All one can figure is it ain't pretty.

It should be noted what the movie is before seeing it, as to not get too blown-out-of-proportion expectations. It's basically two people, a photographer working for a media tycoon and the media tycoon's daughter, going across Mexico through the 'infected zone' after their ferry leaves and bonding over a road trip that is somewhere between McCarthy's The Road and Werner Herzog on a decent day.  They take in the sights, get frightened when they need to, and are wary of the slightest sounds that could call for doom.  And the monsters are more of a state of mind (maybe like terrorism?) that are more apparent on TV's, often seen in long shots, where the aliens are big quid like things.  Think if they had gone that extra distance with the Watchmen film and included the giant squid.  It's like, well, a bunch of them, plus 'extra-terrestrial' trees that are alive.

Edwards creates awe with his world, if not totally with his script or characters.  They are decent people, if a little self-centered with their basic drive being 'get home to finance' or 'get home to son'.  Maybe it's not so much the script but the actors; on the same DVD interview Edwards said that leaving the actors be is the best way to direct them.  This might be true for the countless non-professional actors he uses, young and old Mexicans, some possibly even soldiers or shop keepers and certainly kids, but with the two leads played by Scott McNairy and Whitney Able, they're not very effective in the parts.  They're pretty and hipster-ish, and in another life could have fun at hang-outs in New York city on a Saturday night in Soho.  Most frustrating is Edwards attempts, especially in the final reel, to try and draw out a romance between the characters where it's better to see them as friendly and growing closer but not intimate.  It feels forced, as if Edwards has to work in that romance-sub-plot cliche from monster movies.

To be fair this comes mostly at a surprising point in the film when it should turn into a big action climax.  Perhaps Edwards might have gone this route if he had more than his basic thousands to spare, and maybe we'll see that at full-tilt once he makes his Godzilla adaptation (tapped to finally reboot an American take on the franchise).  It is a touching moment though to see what happens when the Monsters appear.  It intrigued me for how different it was, how it was about connecting through the chaos than through violence and destruction.

By this point Edwards has taken his characters through a landscape that is a waste of buildings and disarray, signs everywhere warning for infection ala District 9, and with the militarization of things being something of a fact of life.  And it has meaning and power because of how low-key a lot of this is - that is, a seemingly low-key, independent feeling (one more comparison for indie-buffs, Sin Nombre, another Mexican road-trip with wanderers without a home but searching for one), but ambitious with its intentions.

Again, I don't think Monsters is meant to be mainstream.  If it were Edwards might have gone that route instead of his method of just doing it himself with a small crew.  Those who come to it may not get one of the best films of the year, though hopefully it will challenge those who are expecting something else, be it something smaller (my initial impression was more like The Road, two people all alone in desolation and gray contours), and people can meet it halfway.

 I can gripe about some of the performances and motivations and dialog in the script, and forgive many of the moments that fall flat for the overall scope and vision.  It's a small story of people who don't fit in trying to find a place that does fit, with the ambition to look like a 40 million dollar blockbuster with its seamless fx and (occasional) impressive creatures.  It's the imperfect little-movie-that-could of the year that is not a documentary, at least not in the usual sense (maybe more in the Herzog-ecstatic-truth sense).

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