A year ago I took a gamble with the cable in my hotel room after a long day of travel and tuned in to what I discovered to be Gareth Edwards’s 2010 film Monsters, and was presently surprised. With the opening of military com chatter and night vision goggles, I figured I was in for a quick mindless action flick to unwind to after a day of a delayed flight due to bird collisions. As the film goes on, I found myself dead wrong on the matter. What I thought was some run of the mill monster film, turned out to be one of the most intriguing films I had seen in a while.
The premise of Monsters is explained in the opening credits: extraterrestrial life was discovered out in space and a satellite sent to collect samples crashed upon re-entry somewhere in Mexico, leading to the creatures multiplying and roaming across the country, with the event taking place six years ago. What we are then presented with is a world that has grown accustomed to the presence of large cephalopodic creatures, rather than the usual panic and destruction one normally finds in such films. The destruction has already taken place, but life has moved on, with humans (the resilient creatures that we are) adapting to a new way of life. The story that follows is the journey of two Americans in Mexico trying to get back to the United States. Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is a photographer looking to capture footage of the creatures for the publication that pays him for his photos. He receives a call to retrieve Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of the owner of the publication, and escort her back to the USA. Mating season of the creatures is soon and if they don’t leave they will be stranded in Mexico for six months due to quarantine.
After being forced from their train due to damaged tracks, the two hitchhike to the gulf-coast and obtain a ferry ticket for the low price of $5,000 for Samantha to make it back to the United States in time. Deciding to enjoy the tequila-filled nightlife before heading home, that ultimately ends with a drunken Scoot McNairy sleeping with a local woman, the passports required to board the ferry are stolen. The pair have to again seek alternative travel arrangements, this time with Samantha bartering her engagement ring for their passage through the alien filled quarantine zone. On a side note, the creatures are never called anything other than just “creatures,” even though they are aliens, which brings up the question: are the creatures “aliens” if they are born there? Traveling overland first by truck and then by riverboat a la Apocalypse Now / Heart of Darkness, they are transferred to an armed escort of guards that are to lead them to the border. After being spooked by the sounds of some wandering cows, the group is attacked when in convoy with Andrew and Samantha narrowly escaping. Travel arrangements yet again disrupted. Back on foot, the pair find rest on top of a Mesoamerican pyramid, looking upon the giant wall the United States has built along the border to keep the creatures out. Glaring political subtext aside, and the fact that such a pyramid can be found nowhere near the US-Mexico border, we are treated to a delightful conversation about how Samantha used to practice laughing, to which she is then jokingly mocked for, the conversation heading toward silent hilarity as the Jon Hopkins soundtrack plays over their laughing faces.
Crossing at an abandoned checkpoint in “the largest man-made structure in the world” the travelers find themselves back in the USA. Shortly after they find out that this wall, like many other walls, does not necessarily keep things out, and that the aliens have advanced past the United States civil engineering marvel into a decimated small south-western town that you would expect to see demolished by radioactive ants, lizards, etc. were this a 1950s sci-fi flick. Finding an abandoned gas station, and after calling for assistance, Sam and Andrew call their respective loved ones to check up on them, Samantha her fiance, and Andrew his son. It’s a pretty powerful scene watching Andrew try to keep his composure talking with his son, who does not know Andrew is his father, on the other end of the line. Sam’s conversation with her fiance has her shift back to the distant and aloof character she started off as in the beginning of the movie. The cut’s back and forth between the two leads really adds to the feeling of the completion of their journey, and a return to normalcy. The rumble of approaching thunder has covered up the approach of one of the creatures, that we finally get to see in all of their cephalopodic glory. It’s one of the few really high tension scenes as two snake their way through the door looking for a meal. After feasting on the electrical signal of the TV that has been hastily turned off by Samantha, the creature greets another, possibly it’s mate, and engage in some sort of dance or perhaps mating ritual, with Samantha and Andrew watching in awe. Bioelectricity flows through the bodies as the two creatures dance with their tentacles entwined before departing as quickly as they came. Shortly after, a military convoy can be heard in the distance, and Samantha hesitantly states “I don’t want to go home,” before cautiously approaching Andrew for a tender kiss as the convoy arrives, and we hear the same military communications chatter that the film opened with.
The thing that really stood out to me about this film is the general atmosphere it presents, which can be attributed to the filming of it. Coming in way under the budget of $500,000, a majority of the scenes and locations where the film was shot at were done without prior permission, and the extras were just people that were around at the time. Reportedly, because of the random extras, the film wasn’t scripted in the traditional sense, including for the two lead roles. Points to be made in each scene were determined, with the rest being up to Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy. In the end, over 100 hours of footage was captured using high end digital cameras, as opposed to shooting in the more conventional, but much more expensive 35mm film, with the camera’s memory sticks being dumped to a laptop each evening for editing. The end result is a film that feels organic in its presentation. The dialog also feels entirely natural and the locations are grounded in reality. One could go and find the boat shack or the street busy nightlife where the film was shot. It’s was kind of jarring going into a monster movie and having this delivered to you. The film is only 90 minuntes long, cut back from over 4 hours, which I would love to see for the dialog alone.
I cannot stress how I much I loved the dialog. Andrew and Samantha start off as total strangers, with their own lives and the problems that go along with it, and as the story progresses we can see them open up to each other, and question the current state of their lives. Early upon meeting one another, Andrew tells Samantha that a photo of a child killed by a creature will earn him $50,000 while a photo of a happy child gets him nothing, to which she asks if it bothers him that he profits from something bad happening to others. He snarkly remarks “You mean, like a doctor?” The travels of the pair have them dealing directly with the people of of the area, and when Andrew has the chance to capture a picture of a dead girl after the convoy attack, he opts instead to cover the body and leave a flower in memorial. Samantha initially comes off as cold and distant, with an unknown sadness about her. When asked what she is doing in Mexico she doesn’t even respond to Andrew’s question. She finally opens up in the concluding lines of the film as to why she’s there. The entire film made me think about the nature of traveling with someone, particularly someone you haven’t known that long or not that well. Small talk will be made as it always does, but will eventually fall away to more serious, meaningful conversations where you really get to know the person. Not all people enjoy talking with someone when they are traveling. Books are fun as well, but in the end its what one makes of it.
Ambient electronic artist Jon Hopkins provides the soundtrack for the film and really shows his versatility as a musician. The soundtrack is used effectively: soft melodious guitar work during traveling montages, eerie and shrill drones at the approach of the creatures. But those both fall short to the simple, clean piano chords that are played under the dialog during the more personal moments between Andrew and Samantha. It’s minimalism at its best, a vast change from the upbeat action-oriented style that is regularly heard in sci-fi blockbusters. Everything Hopkins has composed really fits the ruined landscapes and post-apocalyptic feel of the film. It was a soundtrack I immediately sought out when I returned home and listen to every once in a while, including during the writing process of this review.
Gareth Edwards’s other film that you may have heard of, this year’s Godzilla, marks the director’s superhuman leap from a small little film comprised of seven people, with him doing all of the special effects in his bedroom with a computer you can buy off the shelf, to one of the most iconic movie monsters of the 20th and 21st centuries. How exactly Edwards managed to secure directing a movie with a budget 320 times greater than his previous movie is currently unknown; Harry Edmunson-Cornell’s review of Godzilla has some interesting theories. Watching Godzilla earlier this week, I noticed some particular similarities in the two films that immediately reminded me of a few scenes from Monsters. In both films, there are shots of abandoned cities being reclaimed by nature. In Monsters, these are more so observed in the distance, but in Godzilla we get to traverse the streets of Janjira after the plant collapses. The shots work well in both films, as they do what they are intended to. In Monsters, we don’t need to see the cities from up close as Samantha and Andrew do. Just traveling through, we just need to know that they are there. Being on the street level with Joe (Bryan Cranston) and Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) as they search through their old house with overgrown vegetation works perfectly for the “Force of Nature” theme the movie has.
Both films also deal greatly with the human aspects of the story, Monsters more than Godzilla obviously. Godzilla has the similar story of people trying to get home to their families, with both Joe and Ford. Cranston is trying to get back to Janjira to find out what really happened at the plant and, by extention, his wife, while his son tries to reach his family back in San Francisco only to be delayed. Both films put a lot of emotion into these stories, Cranston as a man obsessed with the truth and one who will go to any length to obtain it. However, due to his story being over 45 minutes into the movie, the rest of the emotional aspect of Godzilla falls on the interaction (or lack thereof) between Ford and his wife Elle (Elizabeth Olsen), which feels either bland or forced, but needed for the movie, even if we don’t really care about it. It’s what’s to be expected in a big budget monster movie. Other takeaways are that Gareth Edwards really loves using helicopters in his movies, and children are used for establishing shots and dramatic effect, even if they are sometimes very wood-like in their performance.
Monsters is available for viewing on both Netflix and Amazon Prime. The trailer for the sequel, Monsters: Dark Continent, was released just prior to Godzilla’s opening day and is set to be released this fall. Gareth Edwards and Scoot McNairy are only on as an executive producers, and although I don’t like to judge a movie by it’s trailer, Dark Continent seems more action oriented than its predecessor. I’m sure there’s some human story buried underneath the guns and sand, we’ll just have to wait and see. Either way, I’m looking forward to seeing Gareth Edward’s name on future projects. And since it was just announced that he’ll be directing the first Star Wars spinoff film, it looks like he’s here to stay.