' ' Cinema Romantico: Monsters

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


Take the Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert of "It Happened One Night", indie 'em up a little and set them loose in a future world where a U.S. space probe crash in northern Mexico has unleashed enormous, tentacled creatures terrorizing an "infected zone" nestled right up against a massive wall constructed by the American government to keep these (ahem) aliens out and, more or less, you have Gareth Edwards' (who not only directed but wrote, photographed, and handled visual effects) "Monsters."

Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is an American photo journalist imbedded deep in Mexico and hoping to score some breathtaking shots of the creatures to land him on the cover of the publication for which he works. But then his unseen boss orders him to escort his daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), marooned and injured, slightly, deep in the heart of Mexico, to the coast where she can then make it home to her waiting fiancé. Kaulder squires her to a ferry that will deliver her from harm's way but through an act of rather amazingly selfish stupidity Kaulder causes Sam to, of course, miss the ferry which means they will have to make the journey back to America, together, by land, by water and then by foot straight through the Infected Zone.

If it sounds like a pulse-pounding, white-knuckle thrill ride, it isn't. Not even close. The creatures are glimpsed and heard far more then they are seen and encountered.  Occasionally their images turn up on TV newscasts broadcast on the edges and in the background of the frame.  Roaring fighter jets constantly grace the sky but are never really seen in action.

No, the film is much more mood and tone then adventure and that mood and tone is eerie and elegiac. Never has there been such a quiet movie involving 100 hundred foot high aliens. The creepiest moment might be the one when our main characters and their charter boat spots something in the distance in the river under the cover of night and have no idea what it is. No musical cue accompanies is this to advise the audience what is coming. Restraint so often yields Tension better than Audience Bludgeoning.

Even the expected bickering between our two leads, both representative of different worlds, is kept to a minimum and when Kaulder's idiocy prevents Sam from boarding the ferry she doesn't get upset, doesn't lecture him, and instead pawns her engagement ring as a means to pay for travel.

Are we to assume Sam doesn't want to get married? Is this why she wound up in Mexico? Was she running away? Kaulder, meanwhile, has a kid - well, he had a kid with a woman. He doesn't really have a kid. He just seems to have his camera. Truly. In a potentially perilous instance, when quick escape is a must, he can't help but slow the process by demanding, "Where's my camera?" The bond between these two is never near as forced as it could have been and their eventual little burst of passion feels much more like a splendid one-off than a map of the future.

The end, meanwhile, is strange and hypnotic, conjuring up memories of that infamous Twilight Zone episode, "The Monsters Are Due On Maple Street." The title of the movie is "Monsters", yes, but throughout every single character refers to them as "creatures", never "monsters." Hmmmmm.  So, who are the monsters then?


Wretched Genius said...

I really liked this film, and I think the criticisms it has received for its symbolism are overreacting. Sure, Scoot's (seriously, the actor's real name is Scoot, thus I refuse to call him anything else) line about how much he gets paid for pictures of dead kids versus happy ones is not exactly a subtle message about modern media, but it's also exactly the way that character would justify to himself what he does for a living. Likewise when he later gives the line about America looking different from the outside, which almost made me groan until he followed it up by specifying that it is a literal statement about physically standing 100 yards from another country.

To me, the movie had no message at all. It just followed 2 people through a journey from one place to the next, quietly observing all the small moments between them. In fact, that's mostly what sticks in my mind, the small human moments rather than the creatures.

Favorite moments, in no particular order:

-When he hands her the nose/mouth-only gasmask, then immediately takes it back and hands her the better full-face one instead, and takes the lesser one for himself.

-When he's investigating the aftermath of the incident with the pickup trucks, and purposefully doesn't respond when she calls out to him, because he doesn't want her to see.

-When they call for help from the gas station, the lady on the phone is polite and courteous.

-All the armed guerrillas are nice people.

Question to Nick (and I'll try to keep it as spoiler-vague as I can): I initially saw this in standard def, and the nightvision footage at the beginning was pretty muddled and hard to discern. I saw it again in HD, which made certain events less ambiguous. Considering it has bearing on how you are supposed to feel at the end of the film, where you able to clearly see what was happening during that beginning segment?

Nick Prigge said...

Well, unfortunately I saw it on the smallest screen of one of the indie theaters in Chicago so, no, I couldn't really see what was going on in that opening scene. In fact, I kind of forgot it opened that way until you mentioned it. Now I'll have to see it again (or wait for a better looking video).