Thursday, 21 April 2011

DVD Review: Monsters

Directed by: Gareth Edwards

Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able


Six years ago, NASA sent a probe into deep space looking for extraterrestrial life in our galaxy. The probe returned with samples, but broke up in the atmosphere. The organisms that survived started to flourish throughout Northern Mexico, forcing the US to build a huge barrier and launch a heavily fought war against the organisms which grew into 100ft tall giant squid creatures.

Up and coming photo journalist Andrew Caulder, who is trying to get some decent pictures of the creatures, is tasked by the owner of the paper he works for with retrieving his daughter, Sam, who has become stranded. Due to the earlier-than-expected migration of the creatures, however, Caulder and Sam find themselves having to cross the Infested Zone, the heart of where the creatures reside.


It’s great when a small film comes along that challenges your preconceptions, makes you think about the genre that it’s been shoe horned into. Monsters is one of those films. The marketing doesn’t do it justice, but rather than get on my high horse and talk about how it doesn’t serve the movie’s interests, I have to concede in that I have no idea how I would have marketed it, to get people to watch it. The quote on the packaging says “Thrilling, Action Packed and totally original”. Not a bad quote but a bit wide of the mark. It’s not action packed in the sense that we see huge battles but the pace of the movie is akin to an action movie. Due to the nature of the graphics on the packaging, the potential viewer would be forgiven that the movie shares something in common with District 9. Both movies share only one real theme – that of immigration.

The title “Monsters” is a bit misleading without being deceptive. It’s a film with Monsters in it and they are the cause of the predicament the characters find themselves in and ultimately the Monsters decide their fate but the story is of a man and a woman finding themselves up against adversity and how it changes them..

One of the main strengths of the movie is the screenplay. Both the characters of Caulder and Sam are well written and realistic characters that go on a noticeable journey both externally and internally. At the beginning, there is chemistry between the pair but this develops subtly as their journey progresses. Caulder is a journalist who fancies himself as a kind of war photographer that hasn’t had the prize winning photograph yet. Sam is a woman whose rich Father has decided how she should live her life and is keen for her to satisfy an arranged marriage. The pair of Caulder and Sam is thrown together as they have to get back to what should be an “uninfected” America from an infected South America . Their travel plans fail and a back up plan faces increasing problems.

At the beginning of the film, Caulder is a man who takes up the job of looking after Sam because he believes that her father will buy his photographs if he does. He tells Sam that if he took a photo of a dying or dead child he would be paid $50,000 but if he took a picture of a smiling child alive and well, he’d get nothing. Instead, Caulder’s lack of discipline leads to the loss of their passports and the decision to traverse the Infected Zone.

The movie is reported to have been made for £100, 000 which makes you wonder what on earth Hollywood productions spend their money on. The only real signs that the movie was made on a shoestring budget occur later on in the film when we see a number of tentacles move about in a gas station. The CGI looks a little primitive but this did not detract from my enjoyment. The scene mentioned is one of few that tap into the conventional sci-fi thriller/horror genre as if Edwards thought “I’d better put something familiar in”. For the most part, the CGI is used exactly how it should be, to enhance scenes without looking glaringly obvious.

The gigantic squid-like monsters in the film seem to be an allegory for natural disasters, especially Tornados. This idea is explicit later on as they arrive at the border only to find that the creatures have breached the wall separating Northern America with Southern America , and left a trail of wreckage behind them. Similarly to Cloverfield, we initially only see the creatures from a distance, and in news reports.

The aliens have adapted to Earth’s ecology by spawning their litter on to trees in the infected zone. The lifeforms, that resemble tree fungi, help populate the species. The Military attempt to stop this by dumping chemical weapons in the infected areas. So, unlike most movies of this type, the creatures are existing threats and a threat we’ve had to get used to. As the film progresses, it’s clear that we’re not doing a grand job of restricting this problem to just one area; a little like allowing weeds to thrive and overthrow your garden. The social commentary and subtext of the movie is in the implication that if man had just allowed the aliens to roam around the Mexican jungle, things would have turned out less volatile but the creatures were provoked.

Gareth Edwards artfully uses the camera as a means to tell the story rather than bogging down the script with needless exposition as many movies tend to do. The scenes of devastation tell the tale and are far more atmospheric than the recent Battle : LA. He harks back to the era when I found movies exciting; with the passion of Spielberg and Cameron, but highlighting modern sensibilities. For the debut feature of a first time Director, Monsters is a surprisingly confident piece of work.

Edwards makes some interesting nods to films that he loves. An attack on a jeep convoy is reminiscent of Jurassic Park , for example. The wall complex reminded me a little of the Ellis Island base in Escape from New York but I doubt that was intentional.

There’s little for me to criticise, but towards the end I found the heavy-handed approach to Caulder and Sam’s relationship a bit much; that it appeared to be the “cuddling” of two creatures that reflected the closeness of the two of them. This is rudely interrupted by the arrival of their military escort and we’re exposed to an ending that frustrates a little as it harks back to the beginning with no prior warning. To me, that’s the only real failing of the film that it opens with the end but whereas we normally get a timescale, like “3 days before…” there is none here, just the repeat of a soldier humming “Ride of the Valkyries”. It's me nit-picking, really.


Anyone wanting and expecting an all out action fest should know that it’s not that. Not that there’s anything wrong in those types of movies. For more of an action orientated alien invasion flick, see Skyline. If you want something a bit more thought provoking and based around characters and the journey they undertake, then Monsters is for you. I had no expectations from this film, so it worked perfectly for me. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Score: 9/10

Mike's review can be found here:

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