Sunday, October 31, 2010

Indie Aliens - Monsters

With a title like Monsters fixed to a movie about a desperate couple traveling through a zone “infected” by extraterrestrial life forms spread by a NASA deep space probe that broke up over northern Mexico, you would be right to expect a creature-feature, Aliens-like splatter-fest. Instead, what Gareth Edwards’s Monsters delivers is a contemplative character study with the atmosphere of an indie travel-pic like The Motorcycle Dairies, full of foreign sights framed by talented cinematography.

Like District 9 (2009), Monsters uses news-footage realism to depict an area of northern Mexico that has been turned into a war zone, but this time no one metamorphoses into an oversized grasshopper and does battle in robotic body armor like something out of Transformers. Here the news-footage realism, and the shots of the destruction eagerly taken by Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photographer on assignment, establish the look and tone of a PBS travel show about a war-torn country.

As jets scream overhead, and explosions thump in the distance, it feels like Kaulder and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of the magazine’s owner, could be wandering through Iraq. Demolished buildings, a whole flattened town, the wreckage of tanks and helicopters, all this makes it clear that the U.S. and Mexican forces have been battling nasty beasties, grown from glowing seedpods spread throughout the jungle like fungi.

Skillfully, signs that life is very different here in northern Mexico are blended with the passing sights Kaulder and Sam take in when Kaulder is forced by his boss to escort the owner’s daughter to the Gulf to catch a ferry back to the States. Shots of wreckage are juxtaposed with atmospheric travelogue images of hands molding tortillas, glasses of tequila, dirty waifs in shabby villages, and a sunset on the river as a flimsy riverboat takes carries the couple into the heart of darkness. In one impressive scene, as they stroll through a picturesque town, they come upon a candlelight vigil for the many dead victims of the alien creatures. As the people mourn their loved ones, jets streak through the night sky and drop distant thunder.

At first, Kaulder resents being dragged away from his choice assignment, but as he grows closer to Sam, and when Sam’s failure to get a place on a ferry necessitates a cross-country trek through the infected zone, he embraces the adventure and the chance to stay with her. Along the way, we learn more about Sam and Kaulder than we do about the big alien creatures. Sam is engaged to a rich guy she doesn’t seem too passionate about. Kaulder has a son from a mother Kaulder barely knows, but his one-pack, camera-in-hand, rootless existence which seems to suit him like dodging bullets in Afghanistan suits writer Sebastian Junger, may just be something that fills his loneliness.

McNairy, with his rugged good looks, establishes Kaulder as a cynical adventurer, but he reveals a tender side when talking to his son on the phone. Meanwhile, Whitney Able plays Sam as the untouchable owner's daughter until she sees how much Kaulder has risked for her. As Kaulder realizes that he might be able to need somebody, and Sam realizes she’s definitely not a rich-bitch trophy wife, they have reached the massive King Kong wall that is supposed to keep the alien fungi from spreading into the United States. Yeah, you knew it. Fat chance.

The monsters do attack. There’s shooting and death, but the action is indie-movie brief and evocative without the action-movie excess. Evoking War of the Worlds (2005) or any monster movie with tentacles, the ending may or may not satisfy, but the journey is a unique one, combining road trip ambiance with the gritty realism of a stark documentary. In a year when large-budget blockbusters deliver little to no satisfaction, it has been gratifying to come across a number of very successful low-budget indies that deliver pleasurable viewing experiences. Made for a budget of $500,000, Monsters does a wonderful job of creating sci-fi chills and a sense of wonder without all the empty CGI bloat.


Sam Juliano said...

"Instead, what Gareth Edwards’s Monsters delivers is a contemplative character study with the atmosphere of an indie travel-pic like The Motorcycle Dairies, full of foreign sights framed by talented cinematography..."

Hmmm, interesting framing here. I must admit I was thinking of a cross between DISTRICT 9 and THE ROAD, but I haven't yet seen the film. I agree with these kind of films it's the adventure, not the denouement.

Richard Bellamy said...

Sam, thanks for the thoughts. Actually, the scene depicted in the second image on my post evokes The Road. And it is somewhat like District 9 in the way it presents the effects of the alien presence on the location, as D9 shows the effects on Johannesburg. But Monsters doesn't stray into silliness as D9 does. I like Monsters a lot more.