Thursday, March 13, 2014

Review: Monsters

As part of my so-called "Movie Diet" (see here for a fuller explanation), I have vowed to review all new films I see between now and April 27th.

If we've learned anything from the movie Monsters vs. Aliens -- and I think we may have, since it's one of Dreamworks' better efforts -- it's that a clear dichotomy exists between these two groups in the taxonomy of scary creatures. Monsters and aliens may look similar, but it's their origin that distinguishes them. Even if they look otherworldly, monsters are decidedly of this earth. Aliens, on the other hand, are defined by their tendency to have grown up elsewhere.

That's the first problem with Gareth Edwards' Monsters. It is clearly about aliens, yet it refers to them by the more generic and terrestrial term monsters. Of course, if Edwards had called the film Aliens, his sociopolitical themes would have seemed even more on-the-nose than they already do.

In the world of Monsters, life has been discovered elsewhere in the universe, but we have failed to contain it. A shuttle bringing back evidence of alien life broke up over Mexico, raining various spores and other alien DNA on the landscape below. Six years later, new life forms have thrived in this now-quarantined zone, some of them as tall as buildings, and they frequently leave our populated areas in waste. The military has been waging an ongoing battle against the gargantuan monsters, managing to seal them off from the United States by a large wall along the Mexican border.

Caught behind this wall is the daughter of a media magnate, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), who has been injured in a monster-related attack. Also there, professionally, is a photojournalist named Andrew Kaulder (Scott McNairy), who is employed by the media magnate and tasked with the responsibility of returning Samantha safely to the United States. The two initially clash over the ethics of Andrew's profession, which necessitates that he try to get photographic evidence of the most heart-wrenching monster-related casualties (such as the death of a child). However, they must forge an uneasy bond as they try, by hook or by crook, to get out of the quarantined zone in the next 48 hours, before it is sealed off for the next six months. This will be especially hard when safe passage costs a small fortune, and even then it's "safe" in name only, as any nightfall potentially means an attack by these creatures.

Director Gareth Edwards was rewarded for his efforts by being handed the reins of the Godzilla reboot that's coming out this summer. It doesn't seem very likely that his writing, or his directing of actors, played much of a role in the studio's decision. His dialogue is clumsily expository, and his ability to get good performances from his cast -- particularly the stiff Able -- is limited. Having conjured some credible DIY monsters, which look a bit like those in Stephen King's The Mist, seems to be the primary achievement that won him the gig.

Monsters was indeed made on a shoestring, but that's only partly to blame for why it's so boring. It's Edwards' pacing, and not so much his inability to pay for a bunch of big scenes of destruction and chaos, that leave the film as such a chore. So much of the running time is consumed on sorting out the logistics of their travel back to the United States that it seems only probable that a fair amount of character development would have the space to occur. Not so. In part because of Able's limitations as an actress, we never get a sense for either of these characters, what draws them to each other, and even the stakes of their return trip to the states. So what if Samantha is caught in Mexico for six months? She speaks Spanish fluently. That's a start.

Some who have praised Monsters believe that it's doing something kind of brilliant, baiting and switching us for our own good. The title promises something more like Godzilla, when instead, Edwards may just want to hide a character study about ideas inside the skin of a monster movie. But I just don't buy it. It's a failure because it doesn't teach us anything about those characters, giving them predictable arcs and never really convincing us to like them.

Of course, one thing Edwards clearly has on his mind is to fulfill the great mission statement of science fiction as a genre: to use the familiar tropes of the genre as metaphor to comment on our society. I don't need to spell it out for you that the monsters, the aliens, in this movie are the Mexican immigrants trying to encroach into the United States. Even if Edwards hadn't constructed a big wall along the border to keep them out, that would still be painfully obvious. So Edwards has the big idea, but he doesn't know how to execute it. The actual Mexican characters who appear in this movie are little more than props, leaving next to no real-world corollary to his monster metaphor.

Upon finishing Monsters I read the Wikipedia plot summary of the movie, as I am sometimes wont to do -- even in situations like this, where nothing overtly confusing takes place. In this instance it was helpful in that the synopsis gave me a different read on what the final scene was supposed to mean. I had misinterpreted how it related to the movie's opening scene, and found the explanation of the relationship between those scenes a lot smarter than what I'd actually just watched. The fact that I didn't get it on my own means that again, there was something crucially lacking in Edwards' execution.

Monsters doesn't leave me particularly hopeful for Godzilla, but I wasn't particularly hopeful anyway, so I guess nothing has changed.


1001: A Film Odyssey is produced, directed and written by Chris, a librarian. said...

I actually appreciated much of the subtlety of Monsters. And on Godzilla, it has to be better than the last one.

Vancetastic said...

I've had some others deliver the same assessment of Monsters, so maybe it deserves a second viewing from me ... at some point.

Roland Emmerich's big comeback with 2012 and Anonymous was just a twinkle in his eye back in the days of the 1998 Godzilla, yes indeed.

Good to hear from you, Chris!