Directed by: Gareth Edwards || Produced by: Allan Niblo, James Richardson
Screenplay by: Gareth Edwards || Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able
Music by: Jon Hopkins || Cinematography: Gareth Edwards || Edited by: Colin Goudie || Country: United Kingdom || Language: English
Running Time: 94 minutes
Before Gareth Edwards’ invitation to the big leagues to direct the $160 million Hollywood studio reboot of 2014’s Godzilla, Edwards got his start the way most aspiring filmmakers do, shooting atypical visions of touchy political subject-matter and stumbling around in the mud with far humbler resources and chump budgets. 2010’s Monsters is a British independent creature-feature that was ostensibly made for less than $500,000; watching Edwards’ first gig in the movie business makes you appreciate what a big jump it was for him to go from making a small, soft-spoken film like this to the gigantic studio project that was 2014’s American Godzilla reboot.
Unfortunately for those interested in checking out Edward’s background credentials, chances are your confidence in Edwards won’t be raised too much by this underwhelming, heavy-handed, and decidedly boring monster flick. It tries way too hard to come across as intelligent, and is far too sentimental and introspective for its own good.
What is commendable about Monsters is how it bothers to build a semi-believable world in which monsters are not only commonplace, but also has a historical backdrop in an otherwise modern, ordinary setting. The premise of the film is that, so many years ago, a NASA deep-space probe crash-landed in northern Mexico, and soon after, potentially hostile extraterrestrial lifeforms spread throughout the region. Much of the northern third of Mexico became a gigantic quarantine zone, and the United States built giant, concrete walls along its southern border to keep the aliens out. See where this is going yet?
The biggest problem with Monsters is that, despite the nuanced touches that Edwards places around his sets and the admirable lengths the design team goes to convince you the setting is real (the many shots of graffiti depicting the quarantined Mexico are cool), much of the spell of science-fiction wonder and suspension of disbelief is constantly shattered by heavy-handed symbolism and dialogue that is bursting with not-so-subtle foreshadowing. Monsters is filmed with the scope and guerrilla-style filmmaking realism of an indie picture, but its thematic content and the clunky lines its characters spout feel like the laziest of Hollywood cliches. Apparently the dialogue was improvised by the actors with only loose guidelines provided by Edwards’ screenplay, so it’s not surprising the conversations are lacking. There’s an abrupt tonal shift whenever the characters transition from discussing basic survival topics to the preachy message that is thinly disguised by the story’s extraterrestrial allegories and concrete wall plot-devices.
Much of the dialogue goes something like this:
Scoot McNairy and co-star Whitney Able ask their Mexican escorts what they think about the United States building a giant wall to keep the aliens out. The guards respond with something to the effect of, “You’re just, you know, creating a prison around yourself, you’re walling yourself in. You can’t live like that.” Hmmm, I wonder what he’s referring to?
McNairy again, “You know how much I can get for a picture of a dead girl lying in a war zone? Forty grand. You know how much I get for a picture of a little girl smiling? Nothing.” Oh God, pass me the tissues…
Later, McNairy and Able sit atop an Aztec temple that’s way too close to the Texas border and lament how once they reach their comfortable, white middle-class homes in the United States, they’ll forget all the important life-lessons they’ve learned on this dangerous, potentially life-altering journey through the alien wastelands. Gee, that’s too bad.
Monsters is a haphazardly constructed political allegory that fails to illustrate its sociopolitical agenda in the way that a much smarter, more cinematically savvy film like Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 (2009) does. Edwards attempts ambitious speeches on topical subjects, but rarely executes them with nuance save for a few brief shots in the movie’s final scene. Sociopolitically conscious stories can work with obvious motives and unsubtle plot devices, as they did in District 9 and American Psycho (2000), but they can also embarrass themselves like in Avatar (2009) or Killing Them Softly (2012). Monsters is somewhat watchable with its cool set-designs and some spooky sequences, but creatively, the film is dead-in-the-water. Its characters aren’t interesting, its dialogue needs work (perhaps lines that were written ahead of time?), and its creature FX don’t even look mildly believable. Altogether, Monsters is a mediocre experience at best, and in retrospect it’s amazing that Godzilla was as good as it was.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Monsters‘ painfully obvious political allegories and clumsily disguised plot-devices get in the way of creepy monster scares. McNairy and Able’s co-leads don’t do much to make us care about them, and their clunky dialogue doesn’t help the aforementioned political preaching. The special FX for the “monsters” are a letdown.
— However… Edwards’ intriguing premise could’ve made for a fascinating story had it not been designed while atop his soapbox. The grungy, low-budget set-design and believable narrative history lend credence to the unknown threats that await the characters on their dangerous journey.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
? After six years, they’re no longer aliens… they’re residents. Now it’s our turn to adapt… IT’S ABOUT ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION! DO YOU GET IT?!