Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Monsters (2010)

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Earlier in the year Patrick Hudson put forward the idea of Gap Year SF, named after the British tradition that school kids go off travelling for a year to see the world before going on to university. The aspiration is that you gain life skills by Peace Corp-style volunteering; the perception is that these life skills are more likely to involve having sex with other Westerners, learning rude words in foreign languages and doing a bit of minimum wage manual labour in Australia to make ends meet. As it relates to science fiction, the idea is that the United States has been the default future for so long that, as readers, we are predisposed to be attracted to SF set in the developing world. But, as with kids on a gap year, is our understanding and interest only likely to be superficial?

Sam (Whitney Able) is as close to a gap year student as you can be without actually being one. She is a trustafarian with a media mogul father and a honking great diamond engagement ring. We are never told why she is in San Jose but it is strongly implied she is in Central America to “find herself” before getting married, settling down and living the American Dream.

Then a disaster hits her hotel. She sprains her wrist and her father orders one of his locally based employees, Andrew (Scoot McNairy), to escort her home. Andrew is a photojournalist and he is as much an archetypal war photographer as Sam is Daddy’s little rich girl. He is cynical, reckless and arrogant (he hasn’t even bothered to learn Spanish). Above all, he has no interest in babysitting his boss’s daughter. So we are all set for a Hollywood romance, right?

Well, actually, we sort of are. But, of course, there is something I have been deliberately concealing, something signalled rather bluntly by the title of the film. That is to say, the disaster which struck Sam’s hotel wasn’t an earthquake or a terrorist attack but rather a giant space squid.

Six years previously a NASA probe brought back extraterrestrial life but unfortunately crashed on re-entry. This resulted in the infestation of vast swathes of northern Mexico and the southern United States with alien life forms and the subsequent coast-to-coast quarantine of a third of the continent. The whole of this area is a No Fly Zone so Andrew is unable to simply stick Sam on a plan. Instead they strike out for the nearest port using the traditional developing world combo of train, truck and shank’s pony. On arrival they find an equally traditional combo of corrupt officials, vibrant nightlife and passport stealing prostitutes. They miss the boat and – whoops – it is the last one for months because the alien mating season is just starting. Their only solution is for Sam to pawn her engagement ring and, in a nice piece of irony, employ coyotes to smuggle them over land through the quarantine zone and back into America (in a further irony, when they arrive at the border the anti-alien wall proves to be just as ineffectual as the current anti-Mexican fence). This all unfolds with a fluid naturalism which makes it possible to ignore the rather rudimentary construction of the plot.

So Monsters is fifty percent romance, fifty percent road movie. As they face travails both terrestrial and otherwise, Sam and Andrew grow closer to each other and start to question what is really of value in their lives. In her case, this means increasing doubts about whether she loves her fiancé; in his, increasing angst about the son he never sees and isn’t allowed to call him dad. The film ends with a genuinely beautiful moment of transcendence and emotional connection. Just like Gap Year students, they have found themselves by exposing themselves to an alien culture.

Monsters is the feature film debut of Gareth Edwards, a British documentary maker. It was written, filmed and directed by him, he provided the visual effects and reputedly brought the whole film in for half a million dollars. Now, film budgets always need to be taken with a pinch of salt but regardless, it is an impressive achievement. And, in many ways, Monsters is an impressive film. I just wish I could have liked it more.

Its strengths can be seen in the obvious comparison to Cloverfield, Matt Reeves’s schlocky 2008 re-imagining of Godzilla. Before are shot on hand-held cameras, although Edwards avoids the extreme contrivance of making the film an unedited, real time record. In both films, the monsters are usually glimpsed obliquely or in the dark. These two decisions were taken for financial rather artistic reasons but, although Reeve had fifty times Edwards’s budget, it is Edwards who has made the best of his constraints. He utilises the inherent intimacy of the shooting style to good effect in what is after al a small story but he also invites light, colour and scale onto the screen. More than this though, Monsters poses a refreshing question: what if NYC wasn’t the centre of the universe?

Once you’ve posed that question, you have to answer it though. Whilst it is always welcome to be reminded that cinematic science fiction can operate on another model to Hollywood, Monsters does not step too far from this path. The problem is not with its aesthetic but with its bones; Edwards is a Renaissance Man but I hope it is not uncharitable to suggest that he is one with a greater facility with images than words. If Hollywood (exemplified by the producer of Cloverfield, JJ Abrams) is habitually and accurately lambasted for preferring style to substance then where is substance to Monsters?

You may, for example, have detected a certain sarcasm to my introductory synopsis of the film. While I was aware of the many familiar elements of the film whilst watching it, it was only as I started to write this review that I became aware of just how many and how cumulative they are. Edwards is clearly striving for the universal but that is only a whisker away from the archetypal. Sam and Andrew are not clichés but they don’t rise far above them; they are characters we know well and whilst Able, McNairy and Edwards turn them into real people, they don’t turn them into particularly interesting characters. Their dilemmas are familiar, adolescent even. So too are their solutions.

Ultimately, I was reminded of Duncan Jones’s Moon: another recent debut by a British director, another quietly impressive science fiction film with a minimal cast, another rarity that was overly praised due to the paucity of similar films to act as any sort of benchmark. Isn’t the potential of science fiction cinema so much more than this though? Is the chasm between the boneheaded blockbuster behemoths and the slightly solipsistic small-budget films too wide to be bridged? Is there no room for an intelligent, exciting middle ground? I hope not and there is some evidence for this hope. Moon won the Hugo last year; I doubt Monsters will do the same and instead it will go to Inception, a blockbuster which, for all its undoubted flaws, had brains. Then there is next year’s Source Code, the next film from Jones and what (from the trailer) looks like an attempt to claim that very middle ground. Hopefully it will be artistically and commercially successful and this will be a progression that Edwards will also take. At the moment, Monsters is more of a calling card (one that is very likely to be successful). If someone hands him a bit more money and a good script I will be really exciting to see what he does with them.

Written by Martin

8 December 2010 at 09:59

Posted in films, sf

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10 Responses

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  1. I have read many reviews of Monsters and my impression is that nobody can find anything artistically remarkable in it…

    As for the new Jones film, it seems very silly in the holywoodian sense… why only the last 8 minutes? Will they upgrade to 9 in the sequel? Yeah, I know I’m bashing a trailer, and maybe there’s really a reason for the time limit other then OH BOY WE WANT MOAR ADRENALINE MOAR EXCITEMENT, but for now this film really doesn’t look like one belonging in the “intelligent, exciting middle ground.”

    And I liked Moon so much.


    8 December 2010 at 12:15

  2. As for the new Jones film, it seems very silly in the holywoodian sense…

    What I’m hoping for – perhaps naively – is a puzzle picture. Something less linear than Moon and more along the lines of Nolan’s earlier films. I’ll admit that the trailer does suggest the potential for a lot of banging and crashing signifying nothing but fingers crossed.


    8 December 2010 at 14:44

  3. I personally did find Monsters artistically remarkable, and I think if it was made for half a mil he’s a genius. However it’s a very shallow narrative.


    8 December 2010 at 14:51

  4. Alison, I don’t think the ability to produce an interesting SF/F (or mainstream) film for half a million dollars makes anyone a genius. So I guess we have different views on artistic merit :)

    I did read the review you posted on your LJ and I enjoyed it, but still, between your review, Martin’s, and my own weird opinions on film-making, I think I’m going to skip this one.


    8 December 2010 at 19:43

  5. I read they didn’t have a script as such, more a fat folder of scene outlines. Edwards had an idea of where the story should go, but the actors (a real life couple already) improvised most of what they said.

    Unlike most movies, where there might be 50 or a hundred crew, this film must have been a shoot experience much like its story: a road trip, six people travelling through Mexico and Guatemala in a van, hiring featured extras at 20 minutes’ notice.

    On Film 2010 Edwards said something like: most films have a script as a target and use the camera & lights to shoot that target. Here he used the camera to shoot in all directions, then looked for the bullet-holes and painted targets round the best-placed hits, and worked with that.

    I liked the way our heroes weren’t trying to fight the aliens – they were observers, passing through, which certainly made for a less-driven plot. I thought it slightly Ballardian, in fact. The authorities were attacking with missiles and gas but off camera, on TV, over the next range of hills. Unlike in many movies, including District 9, our heroes weren’t princes at the centre of the confrontation, they were peasants on the edges. The photojournalist hadn’t managed to see even one monster close up before the film started. The nearest they got to the monsters in Mexico, they spent the entire time cowering in a van. Generally they and all the locals we met were wary about provoking the monsters and basically just tried to keep out of the way.

    The only time our couple (and we the audience) saw any aliens in detail, the climactic scene in Texas, they just watched as the two monsters – great lumbering ten-storey colourful electric squid – simply met, touched tentacles in some mysterious communication and then went off their separate ways into the night, doing their unknowable alien thing. They weren’t invading aliens, they were more a force of nature, like whales, or the weather, or swine flu, or a hurricane.

    Most of the apocalyptic destruction seemed to be caused by the humans with their air strikes. I supposed the monsters were not interested in humans per se, they just seemed to get a bit irritated by our car lights and TVs and electronic communications, which presumably messed with their own electric body systems.

    Sure there were plot holes – why didn’t the couple go south, fly to Africa and then via Asia to the USA? How did the alien squid luck into a tree-river-landwalking life cycle on Earth? There are Tropes & Cliches too – the Yankee couple made it through one disaster when the redshirt coyotes and other swarthy locals all got killed. The thieving prostitute, the venal ticket-seller official.

    On the other hand, the vast majority of the local people, even the rapacious-looking gang of fearsome armed coyotes, were friendly, chatty and informative about the situation and did – or tried hard to do – what they’d agreed to do. Even though attractive Whitney Able spent all her time in tiny shorts (a cliche of its own, I guess) it wasn’t the sort of film where she appeared to be under threat of assault from anybody they met on the road.


    11 December 2010 at 02:22

  6. What you say about the production is so interesting Narmitaj, and I think you are absolutely right about the local people. Realistic people – largely nice folks – going about their lives.

    BTW My feeling is that if the monsters are going out to the open ocean, when it’s all over really.


    11 December 2010 at 10:11

  7. Narmitaj: I read they didn’t have a script as such, more a fat folder of scene outlines. Edwards had an idea of where the story should go, but the actors (a real life couple already) improvised most of what they said.

    That’s really interesting. I’d gathered the production model was extremely limited but not that it was also improvised. I guess we’d have to conclude that Edwards isn’t really Mike Leigh; he needed to do a lot more to get his actors to dig beneath the surface.

    Alison: I think you are absolutely right about the local people. Realistic people – largely nice folks – going about their lives.

    I agree but I still think this a depiction of Americans abroad rather than a foreign country on its own terms. This is where it ties into the idea of the Gap Year; Sam and Andrew might like the people they meet but they are then instantly forgotten.

    My feeling is that if the monsters are going out to the open ocean, when it’s all over really.

    I’d not really considered this. We know the monsters are aquatic, we know they’ve reached the coast, what good then is a fence?


    12 December 2010 at 10:59

  8. Here’s a chatty and detailed interview with Edwards:

    ‘They worked without a formal script, and without too many pre-scouted locations. Once they were on the ground in Central America, he explained, someone would go out and find something really cool to use as a location for a particular scene. And while they were going to that location, if they passed something else interesting, they’d hop out and pick a scene to film there, something within a few scenes in either direction in the script. They had them coded based on whether they were event scenes or emotion/character development scenes, and if the script called for people other than the two leads, they would just ask anyone who happened to be around if they wanted to join in.

    ‘“Everyone is a great actor,” Edwards boldly claimed, and then paused to let that sink in. “No one can play you as well as you can. So that’s what we asked everybody to do. We gave them the basic scene, pointed to a few things that had to happen in the course of the scene, in the conversation, and let them get there their own way. And it worked brilliantly.”’


    The ticket-seller was a local restaurant owner, one of two people in town who spoke English.

    And according to the interview, though it seems an odd way round of doing it, the film was set in Mexico because the already-cast leads were American and the film was about Going Home, and frankly going home through Mexico seemed more adventurous than through Canada: ‘I ran into trouble with that at the Toronto Film Festival…what’s wrong with Canada?’


    12 December 2010 at 16:39

  9. […] Shaviro on Black Swan, a film I’d like to see; Martin Lewis on Monsters, another film I’d like to see; and Abigail Nussbaum and Adam Roberts on Tron: Legacy, a film […]

  10. […] be caught dead at a Star Trek movie. Conversely, a lot of people who might have enjoyed Monsters were probably put off by it being marketed as a variation on District 9 (“After six years, […]

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