Monsters in monster movies.
The wolf man, the vampire, the swamp beast, the thing from another planet, the mutant entity. All of these creatures – and so many more – who doesn’t love them? The problem is that, in film, they are often derivative of those that have been seen in movies before. Sadly, they are also rarely done well.
At their essence, monsters are metaphors for the things we, as human beings living out our relatively short existences on this planet, fear. They are what we don’t want in our lives: hardship, pain or disease. They are what we can never hope to truly comprehend: hatred, death, and, sometimes, even love.
Monsters force us to acknowledge these elements in our own lives and, in acknowledging them, force us to understand and come to terms with our own, primal, fears and misgiving.
In a way that was very understated, very delicate and very human, that’s exactly what the 2010 low budget indie film, Monsters, did.
Monsters is the directorial debut for Gareth Edwards. His is a name that, perhaps knowing or unknowingly, you’ve seen a lot of recently. After the $500,000 budget of Monsters, which he wrote, storyboarded, directed and handled visual effects on, Edwards went on to his second cinematic offering, the currently in theatres, Godzilla. That popcorn summer blockbuster flick has a budget of $160 million, an <a-hem> monstrous difference. You can read a great review of Godzilla right here. Of the two Edwards films to date, on a tiny budget, with a skeleton crew, and a cast of untrained actors (other than the two leads), Monsters is by far the superior film.
Monsters tells the story of Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist working freelance for a publishing company and Samantha (Whitney Able), the daughter of that company’s owner, as they make their way through the quarantined zone of northern Mexico in an effort to get back home to America.
Years earlier, a deep space NASA probe carrying micro-biological life forms from space, returned to earth, crash landing in rural Mexico. The life forms grew, and spread, and have since become the dominant organisms in the area in which they inhabit. US and Mexican authorities have tried to halt their progress via military means as well as through the construction of the “great wall” – an immense and outrageous concrete edifice the divides the border between the two countries. It’s a not-so-subtle nod to current US policies to curb rampant illegal immigration from their southern neighbours. Only in Monsters, that activity takes a more desperate persona.
The most emotionally important aspect of Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is that the alien life forms are actually secondary to the relationship between the two protagonists. A bold idea, given the title of the film. They merely provide a backdrop for Andrew and Samantha, two people with very different backgrounds, how they relate to each other and how their relationship changes as the film progresses.
Through the film, we learn that Andrew, as a photojournalist, is ever ready to profit on documenting other people’s hardships. “Do you know how much money your father’s company pays for a picture of a child killed by a creature? Fifty thousand dollars. Do you how much money I get paid for a picture of a happy child? Nothing,” he tells a slightly detached Samantha, a young woman who has certainly lived a more sheltered, more privileged, life. “Everyone has to earn a living,” he finishes.
Even though Andrew is attempting to help Samantha across the quarantined Mexican countryside, he’s not necessarily on the hunt for monetary gain. He’s also running from a difficult situation back home and the responsibility of having a young child that he’s left behind. Estranged from his child’s mother, he still cares enough for his boy to call him and wish him a happy birthday – but not as the boy’s father – only a good friend, a male role model. It’s this agreement between Andrew and his child’s mother that adds history and depth to the character. Samantha is also running away from her fears of a relationship in the form of an engagement to a man that she does not love, wondering what that lifelong partnership will mean for her own individuality. Even though she hawks her expensive engagement ring in order to secure passage back to America, she confides “I don’t want to go home,” to Andrew, during one of the more poignant moments between the two characters.
Hitchhiking, hiking, bartering and boating are the ways to get home in this new monsters-on-earth existence. It’s a frightening experience, one akin to war with overt traits of classicism, opportunism at it’s worst and, of course, violence. The most interesting stylistic element to Monsters is that the actual creatures are rarely seen. They exist through sound effects and the aftermath of destructive sequences. They are always on the periphery of the cinemagoers view. This has an effect of heightening tension and making these creatures even more fearful – a technique that Edwards uses to great effect again in his recent Godzilla film. Indeed, there’s so much mystery about these creatures, by viewers are some explanations, just as the two main characters are. They are, in so many ways, cyphers for us and our day-to-day lives.
There’s so much attention to detail and nuance in Monsters, in both the acting by McNairy and Able, as well as in the visuals,that it’s absolutely incredible to experience. Look for government warning signs, graffiti and imagery and war equipment carried by passers-by’s, which add so much depth, meaning and realism to the story. Multiple viewings are necessary to catch everything that Gareth Edwards wants to show. It’s amazing what the director was able to accomplish on such a small budget.
Monsters is an example of the best that the genre can communicate. Although some may find it’s heart-of-darkness trek through the bleak and dirty and wonderful Mexican geography a little on the slow side, the characters make the entire journey riveting. It tells a story of people and their circumstances. And that’s something we can all understand in our own lives. Alien beings or not.
The film went on to win many independent film awards and gross over $4 million at the box office in limited release. It’s reception brought notoriety to Gareth Edwards as a young director with a distinct and unique filmmaking vision. He’s definitely one to watch.
The greatest achievement for Monsters, however, might be that it got Edwards the main chair for one of this summer’s blockbuster films in Godzilla. And the door is now open for him to continue with his moviemaking desires. As cinema-goers, we’re all the luckier for that.