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May 2011

Monsters

cast: Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able

director: Gareth Edwards

90 minutes (12) 2010
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Vertigo / Momentum DVD Region 2

RATING: 9/10
review by Jonathan McCalmont

Monsters

We are a supremely competent culture. With universities desperate for any revenue they can lay their hands on, the last quarter century has seen an explosion in the number of people attending graduate school, business school, art school and film school. Year after year, these institutions turn out eminently competent individuals who have learned the tricks of their trade whilst having little or no idea as to what to do with these tricks. Film schools in particular seem incredibly adept at producing filmmakers who know the vocabulary of film, and know how to put pretty images on the screen, but lack the sort of vision that makes for great cinema.

Given the pervasive nature of this culture of vacuous competence, it is a real joy to discover the work of a debut director who not only knows how to direct but who also has something genuinely interesting to say. Gareth Edwards' Monsters was made for less than $500,000 but, despite the limited budget, Monsters contains more tension and atmosphere than any of the recent big-budget science fiction films. Though far from flawless, Monsters displays a marvellous control of tone and a masterful grasp of the power of images both political and fictional.

Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is an American photographer struggling to make a living on the Central American side of what has become known as the 'infected zone'. The infected zone was created when an American spacecraft carrying extraterrestrial organisms broke up in the atmosphere above US airspace. Adapting to the terrestrial environment with remarkable ease, the organisms began to reproduce resulting in the lower half of the continental United States being effectively taken over by 150-metre tall alien creatures that prove remarkably resistant to American weaponry.

One day, Kaulder receives a phone call from his boss who tells him that he is to check in on the publisher's daughter after she injured her arm in an accident. Resentful of the imposition, Kaulder stomps off to meet Sam (Whitney Able) and is ready to give her the brush-off until he realises that not only is she quite cute but that, in Central America, nobody can hear you being unfaithful to your wife. After a night drinking in the local culture, and politely rebuffed attempted seductions, Kaulder manages to make Sam miss her ferry back to the US and so he volunteers to travel with her by land across the infected zone.

Monsters begins with the sort of grainy low-light images that we have come to associate with American military action in the Middle East. Blasting down a desolate highway in the middle of the night whilst humming the Ride Of The Valkyries, the American soldiers catch sight of a 'creature' and a vicious battle ensues. This is our first encounter with the creatures and it sets the tone: these are things to be feared and fought against. The creatures are a military problem and, as such, they demand a military solution.

Once the film moves on to the story of Kaulder and Sam, Edwards expands on this set of cultural associations by dropping visual hints that the creatures are a public health issue. Smiley cartoons instruct children to don respirators whenever they see a creature while the talk of 'infections' and biohazard symbols evoke the recent fears of biological weapons and influenza pandemics. In other words, the creatures are a bit like terrorists, a bit like WMD, and a bit like bird flu.

From there, the film slides seamlessly into the territory so memorably charted by Joseph Conrad's Heart Of Darkness (1902) as the couple hook up with a lot of sinister-looking swarthy-skinned types who take them on a harrowing cruise up a river where danger seems to lurk everywhere within the waters and the weeds. By this point, Edwards has teased our cultural associations to breaking point; the creatures are not just scary, they are the very embodiment of western fears. They are foreign, they are violent, they are dirty, they are disease-ridden, they are terrorists, and they are immigrants.

Indeed, were it not for Edwards' next move, Monsters would come across as a piece of neoconservative propaganda. However, as Sam and Kaulder sit in the forest with their minders, a mood of openness descends upon the camp and the Americans use their limited language skills to ask their minders how they feel about the creatures. The results are surprising as the minders are not so much afraid of the creatures as they are accepting of the changed nature of their world. "The trees are full of extraterrestrials," one of them says with a simple shrug and so they are´┐Ż the creatures have a life-cycle that begins and ends in the trees and while they may end up as huge, stilty octopus-things, they begin their lives as tiny, glowing creatures attached to trees, creatures that contain no small amount of exotic beauty.

The 'big idea' behind Monsters is that instead of fearing the alien and trying to isolate ourselves from the 'other', we should be opening ourselves up to its strangeness by looking at it with an open mind and an open heart. Edwards initially makes us fear the creatures by drawing upon our fears of terrorism, immigration, chemical weapons and third world squalor. However, he then makes us come to appreciate the innate beauty of the creatures and, in so doing, suggests that there may be some beauty to be found in the things that we, as a culture, fear the most. Having hoisted us with our own petard, the film then moves on to a genuinely fascinating depiction of contemporary America...

The first thing that Sam and Kaulder notice when they reach American territory is a vast wall stretching as far as the eye can see. Whether designed to keep out creatures or illegal immigrants, 'the Wall' has transformed America into nothing less than a fortress, but it is a fortress whose battlements are now empty. Moving past the wall, the couple find themselves in an abandoned town full of shredded American flags, upended cars and partly destroyed houses reminiscent of the scenes filmed in New Orleans after the breaking of the levees. Together, these sets of images paint a picture of America as a hollowed out and failing empire. America, Edwards suggests, spends a fortune seeking to defend itself against nature itself but for all the money and effort it pours into its reaction against the world, it fails to protect and nourish the people of America. Indeed, aside from Sam and Kaulder, the only Americans to feature in the film are soldiers and a crazy woman draped in a tattered stars and stripes flag. America is at war against everything but is capable of defending nothing.

Exquisitely shot and elegantly paced, Monsters takes us on a journey into the heart of our culture's darkness, but instead of croaking 'the horror, the horror' as we die, we are left sighing 'the beauty, the beauty' as we emerge from the film with our eyes opened and our hearts skipping. However, while Edwards' eye for composition and cultural iconography undoubtedly yield a genuinely exceptional film, Monsters is let down by its more human elements.

On one level, Sam and Kaulder are nothing more than lenses through which the audience can experience the tonal and visual shifts of the film. Much of their screen-time is devoted to them reacting to the world as they see it, thereby informing us how we should and should not interpret the images on screen ("the vibe has changed" whispers Kaulder at one point). However, on another level, the characters are also a microcosm of the film's political and cultural attitudes for, if Monsters is concerned with our attitudes towards the unknown, then it is their attitudes towards the unknown that drive the characters and their relationship.

For example, Kaulder is introduced as a profoundly mercenary individual who seeks out the strange purely in order to benefit from it. We can see this in his desire to take photos of creature victims and his desire to bed Sam because she is not his wife. Similarly, Sam is both fearful and open to the world in the way that most tourists tend to be. She can speak a little Spanish, she has some interest in local culture but what she really wants to do is get home.

As the film progresses, the characters undergo some degree of change as Kaulder starts to appreciate the other for the sake of its beauty (he eventually stops taking pictures even though he would make a fortune selling them), and Sam comes to realise that she does not really want to go home as there is nothing there for her that she really wants. Once this change in the characters has taken place, the American military are not so much rescuing them as they are dragging them back to the grim and toxic reality that the characters now want to be free of.

While Sam and Kaulder's individual journeys make perfect sense, they make little sense in the context of a relationship. Throughout the film, Edwards hints that the couple might be falling for each other but this simply never convinces and so the relationship never feels like anything more than an attempt to slap an emotional fig leaf on what is ultimately a film driven-by and interested in ideas.

The DVD comes with an extensive suite of extras including a fascinatingly candid behind-the-scenes documentary that shows how the film was shot and how the small cast and crew worked together to bring the project to fruition. What makes this documentary so fascinating is that it really conveys the tentative nature of the production process and how cast and crew spent most of filming trying different things to see how they would turn out before pretty much creating the final film in the editing suite.

This atmosphere of almost playful experimentation also comes through in the decent but hardly world-beating commentary track featuring Edwards and the two leads. With so much experimentation going on during the production process, it might have been nice to see some of the deleted scenes in order to get an impression as to what film Monsters might have become, but with nearly two hours of extra features already included, I can understand why none of the footage made it on to the DVD. Overall, this is a thoroughly excellent film and an entirely laudable DVD release that deserves to sell a lot of copies.



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