At first glance, Monsters is just another story about aliens coming to Earth and humans’ ability (or inability) to deal with them. But below the surface lies a fairly complex film peppered with cultural questions that aren’t easily answered. Similar in look and feel to 2009’s District 9, this movie feels like a feature length YouTube film featuring some impressive visual effects. But in a way, this is more impressive than Neill Blomkamp’s directorial debut: D9 had a 30 million dollar budget, and Monsters was completed for only $15,000.
Ever since my active decision to avoid trailers for Inception earlier this summer, I’ve gotten into the habit of not watching trailers for movies I’m interested in seeing – especially independent films. In a way I can’t entirely explain, it seems as if indie movies have more to lose by showing excessive amounts of footage than big Hollywood blockbusters. Perhaps their low budgets and tendency towards intimacy with the audience are the cause of my belief, but examples in which this feeling is heightened are in mystery-based independent films. I feel like almost any footage from a mysterious independent movie is considered a “big reveal,” oftentimes revealed purely from a marketing standpoint to get people into theaters. Movies like Catfish and Buried work so much better without “spoiling” any of the footage by seeing a trailer, and this point also holds true with Monsters.
Luckily, I didn’t watch the trailer before I saw the film. If I had, I surely would have gone in with expectations much more aligned with Blomkamp’s District 9 than the film’s early buzz already indicated. The trailer paints the movie in a much more action-heavy light, and I’m honestly not sure if I would have been able to get past being “tricked” – I would almost certainly have negatively judged the film based on its representation from the trailer. So heed these words: this film is not an action-based adventure story. Monsters is a pondering evaluation of life, love, and the nature of humanity.
There’s a lot going on in the story, which is a testament to Gareth Edwards, who pulled quadruple duty (writing, directing, production design, and visual effects) crafting a cohesive story out of a script that was largely improvised and shot on the fly with a four person crew. Aside from a chaotic opening scene, the sequences with the creatures were beautiful and reverent, akin more to the treatment of the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park than the shoot-em-up attitude of most recent science fiction. Themes of isolation, immigration, cultural responsibility, and self-reflection cause the audience to step back and consider the messages Edwards presents, and there are many enriching ways to read the film (with the danger of mixing metaphors more prominent as it progresses).
The movie falls a bit short of brilliance by dragging a bit in the middle; even though it is actually one minute shorter than Buried, Monsters feels so much longer because of the ponderous nature of the film. The pacing starts out well, but as the duo travels across the country, it seems they aren’t covering much ground for large chunks of the movie. It’s a slow process, but ultimately worth the wait considering the phenomenal shots Edwards managed to capture on film. The scenery is as much a character as the two leads, and is actually sometimes more captivating.
The acting, by real-life couple Scoot McNairy (In Search of a Midnight Kiss) and Whitney Able (the pitiful cult “classic” All The Boys Love Mandy Lane), was genuine and endearing. Along with their performances, all of the supporting characters were just random citizens who happened to be in the areas where they were filming. None of the other cast members are professional actors – and I’m not implying they were good enough to hold that title – but it gave the film an added realism that enhanced the story.
I saw the movie with a friend who said he’d recommend that everyone see this movie once in their lifetime. I don’t quite agree, since I think only a select few will appreciate Edwards’ approach to the material and most will probably be agitated with the slow pace and lack of action. The title implies more sci-fi than the audience actually gets, but if you read this film a certain way, it’s perhaps the most apt title Edwards could have imagined. Until next time…