Monday, February 6, 2012

Monsters

2010, Gareth Edwards -- DVD

Monsters is a low-budget sci-fi horror/thriller that takes place five years after an invasive alien species came to Earth, setting up home in the oceans off the coast of northern Mexico and the southern United States, periodically emerging from the deep to seemingly attack the civilizations and to spawn. 

The film came to me with a bit of a reputation attached, a reputation I explored about as much as the plot (which is to say very little).  I had heard it was surprising, and actually a good film, but I think in my mind I was expecting something along the lines of a District 9-in-Mexico scenario or something more like a Blair Witch with chupacabras.  I didn't realize it would have such a well thought out reality, and be more of a potent character drama then any kind of action movie at all.

The story follows photojournalist Andrew Kaulder as he documents the aftereffects of a monster attack on a Mexican city.  He's requested by his magazine's editor to first search for the boss' daughter, Samantha, who was potentially caught in the middle of the conflict, and then given the task of escorting her to safety, and ensuring she returns home before the spawning season begins and passageways between Mexico and the US are complicated.  Through an honest, but costly mistake, Andrew finds himself escorting Samatha through the quarantine zone through underground border-crossing channels, but instead of them racing for their life hour after hour, day after day, the film goes a far different route.

The journey is an arduous one, but it's the method in which it is conveyed, akin to a travelogue more than an adventure.  The camera focuses on the environment, making note of the natural beauty on display in Mexico's wilds, but also highlighting the effects the monsters, and the United States military who have been fighting them, have had on the landscape.  It's not all ugly, but largely, it's not pretty.  Samantha, with a fluency in Spanish, converses with the locals, learning how their lives have been affected by the invasion, and the fighting.  Andrew documents things in a quieter style, with his eye.

As the film progresses, were privy to Andrew and Samantha's conversations, but only as they're relevant.  All the dialogue in the film, between the Samantha and Andrew and their guides and the people they meet is all spoken in natural tongue.  It's not Hollywood conversation, but the type of exchanges you'd expect real people to have.  With the naturalistic world writer-director (and cinematographer and effects supervisor) Gareth Edwards builds around the characters visually, he also instills in the characters with a surprising finesse.  While the early impression is the two attractive leads are naturally going to be drawn to each other, because that's what happens in films, the manner in which the two come together, how they bond makes sense, but it's also not the only outcome.  They could just as easily part ways and the film would feel as complete.

By the climax of the film, this natural flow, the sense of reality earns the story a moment of utter beauty.  Most sci-fi films try to force a poignant moment upon the viewer and hope it resonates, but here, with Monsters, it really is not only a surprise, but a revelation.  The creatures take on a whole different meaning, and the whole world as it was presented seems so much richer than it already was.  Edwards uses his special effects as a storytelling and world building tool, and never abuses them.  There's no razzle dazzle here, he's not showing off, he's genuinely building something wonderful, and it's a rare movie of any genre that actually feels like something different, something special.