The budget of a film is rarely newsworthy unless it is a superlative. “Avatar” was the big story even before it raked in of three quarter of a billion dollars because of it its $237 million budget, (according to IMDb). On the other end of the spectrum it is good to see someone pull of something decent for an obscenely low pricetag. This is Gareth Edwards’ “Monsters,” who made the picture for a reported fifteen thousand dollars, and held in that regard is a pretty amazing achievement, but the film on its own merit is a mixed bag.
Set six years after a NASA probe crashed in Mexico bringing extra terrestrial life to the jungles, “Monsters” revolves around two hip Americans trying to make their way back home. The woman,Samantha (Whitney Able), is an idealistic heiresswho is stuck below the “Infected Zone.” The man, Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), is a hip photojournalistwho has been conscribed to escort her back home. Shooting in Mexico, Belize, and Texas the film was shot with a two-person crew, Edwards and sound recordist Ian Maclagan, who drove around locations with the actors and found places to film. Edwards was able to make a “monster” movie with his own hand because of his background as an effects artist on a lot of BBC TV Documentary series about space exploration. He crafted the effects on his computer at home, and what he created is incredible. Squabbling about whether the number quoted above refers to the “production” budget, and doesn’t take into effect the coloring, sound design, or music is immaterial. The film looks good for a $1.5 million picture, let alone $15,000.
Easy comparisons can be made to Neill Blomkamp’s “District 9,” as he went down a similar path as an effects artist, though he got his start on a slightly higher budget. Dollars and cents aside “District 9” succeeds on a different level than “Monsters” due to the differing qualities of the script and direction. Edwards’ script is filled with too many themes to make a consistent whole, and his direction is a bit opportunistic. Each act of the film has a different allegorical theme rendering the film a mish-mash of pseudo-political commentary sprinkled over a love story with scant alien intrusion to be found.
In the first act when Kaulder finds Samantha in Central Mexico she is in a busted up hospital for those wounded by the insurgent “Monsters” or by the American forces that are pummeling them with air strikes. The bombed out city and its victims of the violence raging between the two opposing sides plays as a Middle Eastern canvass on which Edwards uses to paint a thinly veiled metaphor.
During the second act, as Kaulder and Samantha try desperately to make it back to the States by trekking through the Infected Zone Edwards focuses a different kind of Alien. The two hip white people pay some unrealistically nice coyotes to smuggle them across the border into the US. The impending obstacle in their way is a huge wall America has built to keep out the nasty aliens. Again Edwards uses a hot-button issue, this time Illegal Immigration, as a template for his story, adopting the images for his own uses, but paying no respect to any political implication they might have.
Shooting in Galveston, Texas in what looks like the aftermath of 2008’s Hurricane Ike, the third act of “Monsters” co-opts the horrors of Katrina as its palate. There are repeated images of tattered American flags flopping in the breeze over demolished buildings. This is the vision of America; beat up and over run by the “Aliens” that it spent so much effort to keep out.
Without giving away what actually happens, the final scene would seem to suggest, maybe the “monsters” aren’t actually who we, Americans, think they are. During the bookends that tie the film together a G.I. bumping along in the back of a Hum-V sings Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkeries.” The apparent ties to Nazi newsreel footage may have been overlooked, but the reference to “Apocalypse Now” is not. Comparing the battle with the giant squid-like aliens, and the brutal,one-sided Air-Cav assault on the Vietnamese village in Coppola’s film puts forth the idea that America is the aggressor in the situation. Like Robert Duvall’s Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now” Americans are mindless hawks who love the thrill of battle, and do not take into account the human costs associated with their actions. The ending taken in context with the first act the film could exist as an anti-war, anti-American statement, but unfortunately there is the second act, and all of that hurricane stuff to contend with intellectually. Taken as a whole the film is saying that Americans have no use for those that do not share our value system. We will bomb you into submission, or if easier, just build a wall to keep you out, though eventually this philosophy will come back to destroy us.
Other than that the film is a good diversion. The “b-Story” of the picture is the love story between Kaulder and Samantha, and both actors play the romance off well if one can get by their hipper-than-thou-haircuts and Urban Outfitters chic. The photography, shot on a prosumer Sony HD camera, is lush and well done, and the sound design is textured enough as to tease the audience when the aliens aren’t on screen. Edwards’ effects are mostly seamless; placing decaying buildings, downed planes, and destroyed boats in places they wouldn’t usually be found. The creature design is a little reminiscent of “Cloverfield,” or “The Mist,” but as it is the actual “Monsters” are not the real focus of the film “Monsters,” so it is forgivable. But again, referring back to the previous paragraph, maybe the “Monsters” are not what we originally assumed, wink, wink.
For his ambition and achievements with so little operating capital Edwards should be applauded. Technically the film is stunning, however in the departments that cost little money, but cost a lot of brains “Monsters” falters. As a showpiece for a director’s reel the film will win Edwards more work (work that I would gladly see), but going down in the annals of great writing it will not. The film’s lofty ideals get lost among the clumsy execution. Edwards might have been better served if he had focused solely on the love story, and just thrown in a gunnery Sergeant at the end yelling indignantly, “Aliens don’t surf!”
El Luchador Rating: El Luchador Rating:
Review By: Paul S. Myers (a.k.a. El Luchador)