Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
December 2010

The visitors

Gareth Edwards' micro-budget 'Monsters' succeeds on pure ambience

Magnet Releasing
Director: Gareth Edwards
Screenplay: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able
Rated R / 1 hour, 34 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

From time to time a movie sneaks up on you, subverting your expectations of what it was trying to be in the first place. All I knew about Monsters going in was that it had two disheartening things in common with the recent Skyline - one, that its writer-director (Gareth Edwards) was originally a special-effects guy; and two, that it looked very much like another in what promises to be a substantial line of District 9 offspring.

That the film is actually nothing like either of those two films mentioned was a pleasant surprise. Monsters does away with the expectations of action that come with any movie involving aliens, offering instead a thoughtful look at a future in which humans have had to adjust to a new reality.

Extraterrestrials - which in this case look like what would happen if an elephant and an octopus had a giant alien baby - have taken residence across the U.S./Mexico border. The ensuing military struggle has left people largely to their own devices and created what amounts to a sort of postapocalyptic lawlessness. Crooked (or merely opportunistic?) entrepreneurs charge an arm and a leg - or perhaps an expensive diamond ring - simply for a ferry back to America.

There's a matter-of-factness to Edwards' style that effectively downplays the sci-fi element in exchange for a greater emphasis on mood. We feel what the world has become more than we actually see it. There are times - offbeat moments between characters set against an ethereal, almost Gothic backdrop - when the film reminded me of the early work of David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls, Undertow). That is among the highest of compliments I can hand out.

The landscape of this world is peppered with decaying murals - warnings of the creatures' presence - abandoned tanks, fallen helicopters. Locals whisper of their encounters with the aliens, or of the rumors they've heard. Like any country caught in social upheaval or war, the borderlines where Monsters take place have created a new normal. People have adjusted accordingly. Live life, raise your family, go out dancing . . . Oh, and try to avoid the infected zones where giant alien creatures might eat you.

Edwards has such a gentle touch with atmosphere that it's a shame he didn't get more into the mentality of any characters. Really, there are only two characters - non-professional locals from around the filming location make up the rest of the cast, playing small peripheral roles - and their partnership feels forced and unconvincing from the start.

For all Edwards' ability behind the camera, he certainly can't write dialogue. Nor can he create a believably intimate relationship between characters without forcing the issue. The film's story centers around a photojournalist tasked with transporting the daughter of his wealthy boss back to the States. Andrew (Scoot McNairy) reluctantly acquiesces while his new charge, Samantha (Whitney Able), quietly mopes about how unhappy she is with her fiancee. Can you see where this is going? Of course. And can you also see why it is so unnecessary? Sure you can.

In a story that boils down to the old Road Movie formula, sexual tension between two young, attractive people is inevitable - but instead of allowing it to develop organically, Edwards manufactures plot points and backstory details that make sure we get the point. And so ultimately it takes until well into the film before any genuine chemistry between the two develops.

What's curious is how lacking in subtlety that relationship is, while so much of the rest of the film is an exercise in subtlety and minimalism. The creatures themselves have only a small role in the film - and that's for the best. They're nicely designed and look impressive in certain scenes, but Edwards understands that the effectiveness of any special effect is understanding its limit. If we were seeing the aliens in broad daylight, the illusion wouldn't be nearly as strong. As it is, they're kept mysterious and in the dark, which makes their periodic arrival more effective and more dramatically significant.

What Edwards proves more than anything is that he's more than capable of becoming a truly good filmmaker. Maybe he's already there. If he ever tries a more plot-centric film, he'll probably need to hire a screenwriter, but that's another story. Much will be made of the fact that Monsters was made on a shoestring budget with almost no crew, but budget and quality do not go hand in hand. Even with a sci-fi film that requires special effects. With Monsters, Edwards makes that crystal clear.

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