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Monsters (2010)
Director: Gareth Edwards

review by J.C. Hartley

This is a great film, watch it. I've had to put that recommendation in now. It's easy to review 'poor' films, and films that are a lot of fun, films that wear their hearts on their celluloid sleeves, comic-book adaptations and neglected minor classics. Reviewing becomes harder when you see a film that you thoroughly enjoy but then find yourself carping slightly, or qualifying your praise. You don't want to pretend that this is the greatest thing ever, and sometimes you are aware of things that could have been done better, but you don't want to 'big' something up too far in case other people come along and shoot it down.

Still, Monsters is a great little film. Not 'great' in that it will bestride the world of film like something from Colossus Pictures Corp., but when the current SF obsessed movie world is offering alien invasion flicks like Skyline, 'World Invasion: Battle LA', or whatever it's currently being called, and 'Cowboys And Aliens', it's nice to have a SF movie with a more intimate feel. What's 'Attack The Block' going to be like?

Of course this doesn't have to be a science fiction film. The central premise, the dynamic between the main characters, could have worked without the SF macguffin. A probe, designed to scour the Solar system for extraterrestrial life, has come back with something on board and crashed in Mexico. A wide strip of land comprising urban areas and rainforest is 'infected' with the monstrous aliens of the title. A photo-journalist named Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), is in Mexico to get the lucrative photos of dead children killed by the aliens for his magazine, and is instructed by his editor to collect the daughter of the magazine proprietor from a local hospital and conduct her safely back to the USA.

The film opens with the kind of grainy night-vision footage of a military patrol that we are familiar with from the war in Afghanistan. One of the soldiers dum-da-da-da-daas his theme tune, inevitably the Ride Of The Valkyries, before the patrol is locked in combat with a barely seen alien. The early footage of the film proper has the racy hand-held quality of newsreel film, with fast cutting barely keeping Kaulder in shot as he searches a local hospital for his charge Samantha (Whitney Able, Mrs Scoot McNairy).

Samantha has a bandaged arm but is otherwise unhurt. She is returning to the USA to marry her fianc�e. We do not find out why she is in Mexico. The pair haggle, unsuccessfully, for the ferry ticket that will get Samantha home. They then spend the evening drinking and also explore the shrines to the civilian dead. Kaulder makes a clumsy pass at Samantha who gently rebuffs him, but having spent the rest of the evening drinking and ending up in bed with a local girl, Kaulder is robbed of passports and money. The pair are now forced to hire safe passage through the infected zone, which Samantha pays for with her engagement ring.

I have subsequently read a criticism of the film which points out that, geographically, the infected zone is currently a desert. I should have known this from No Country For Old Men. Perhaps the rainforest is part of the alien infection? Perhaps the USA has moved the border? This doesn't really matter.

Writer and director Gareth Edwards, mainly known as a digital effects artist, apparently filmed Monsters with a single camera. There are some incredible shots, both in composition and aesthetically. It's hard to say what has been enhanced, suffice to say it doesn't show. There are various referential calling-cards in the film, which is something I enjoy, so indulge me. Imagine if you will the river trip of Apocalypse Now, Jenny Agutter's grown-up character from Nic Roeg's Walkabout, the distressing jungle ambience of Predator, and then stir in the plot and Gable and Colbert's characters from Capra's It Happened One Night.

Edwards does mostly avoid clich�. Grungy journalist and poor-little-rich-girl heiress finding love, worked for Gable, Colbert, and Capra, but - while Kaulder does a good mumbling Bruce Dern - he is charming in a goofy way, and Samantha is no ivory-tower ice-maiden. Kaulder fixes Sam's bandage at one point, and we wonder if, rather than spraining her arm, she has slashed her wrist. Most of the damage to the areas around the infected zone proves not to have been occasioned by the aliens, but to be the result of USAF bombing.

Edwards plays with allegory, the Iraq and Afghan wars being obvious beats, as well as illegal immigration from Mexico to the US, but he doesn't hammer it. At one point Kaulder and Sam are conducted through the jungle by a heavily armed gang. Decades of film-watching makes you nervous for their safety and mistrustful of their guides' intentions. If this were Hollywood, the gang would try to kill Kaulder, and rape and rob Samantha, before being thwarted by a timely appearance by the aliens. This doesn't happen, although the aliens do appear and to devastating effect. Instead, the men enlighten the travellers to the aliens' life-cycle, and point out that they are relatively placid if left alone.

Edwards uses 'found' locations and 'found' extras; some of the dialogue may have been improvised. A clumsy scene where the pair are viewing the wall, which now forms the Mexico-USA border, from the top of a Mayan temple, is perhaps the only false note. The finale, in the gorgeous devastation of a border town, and in an abandoned service station, is beautiful and unexpected. The director threatens an ending laden with menace and suspense and then offers something completely different. However, as a patrol speeds to pick the pair up, the Ride Of The Valkyries, hummed by one of the soldiers, has an unsettling effect; please don't tell us this is the start of the movie, I like these characters.

It's alright; I think it's going to be alright. There are no big ideas here. It's a film to immerse yourself in and enjoy at the time. It's not something that gains in stature as you mull over it in retrospect, and I'm sometimes suspicious of films that need that kind of retrospective vindication anyway. The look of it stays with you, and that would reward subsequent viewing on its own. It's actually a brilliant achievement and, given its inherent simplicity, is a more valid contribution to the kind of SF that imagines human beings in extremis, than any big-budget extravaganza. Okay, I'm a sucker for a love story.

Monsters



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