Sunday, November 27, 2011

Monsters

2010 ****3/4

I watched this in March because it was announced that director Gareth Edwards would helm next year's attempt at another western Godzilla movie. I liked it a lot and decided to screen it again for Horrorthon. The second time around it struck an even deeper chord, probably because I watched a few regular monster movies a few days before. I'll let the opening text speak for itself.




The story opens in a Central American city the morning after a night of monster attacks. Helicopters are constantly flying overhead. In the distance are plumes of smoke rising against the blue sky. Tanks clank down the street. It will be a long time before the movie shows you a monster, but their presence is felt everywhere, every second.



Against this backdrop, American photojournalist Andew Kaulder is asked to check on Samantha Wynden, the daughter of his newspaper's owner, as she was in a hotel that was damaged the night before. Once he finds her, he's tasked with an offer he can't refuse, even though he wants to: make sure she gets home safe.

The first leg of their journey is the more civilized part, as they make their way to the border town just south of the Infected Zone. It's a hodgepodge of rides on trains, buses and in the backs of pickup trucks. The two travelers develop an awkward but positive chemistry with each other, and the looming presence of the creatures is felt everywhere in the background hum.

This is especially impressive considering that every second of footage was shot on location, often using extras who were the people around at the time. The brooding mood was dropped in afterwards, with the help of sharp editing, clever use of special effects and a haunting soundtrack. At one point in the early part of the journey, they show something that just cut me to the quick:

This crappy street mural is seen briefly in the background, but in those few seconds the movie hits a note of realism no other giant monster movie has ever reached, and I say that with some authority. I saw that and I thought "Of course!" If there really were giant monsters walking around, the monumental change they would bring would permeate all corners of human experience. The culture would be forever changed.

Yet, brilliantly, Monsters shows how life goes on. Sam asks a taxi driver how he can live where he does, and if he feels safe. He says "What can I do? My work, my family is here. It happens about once a year, we take our chances."

When the opportunity to get Sam on the ferry home falls through, Kaulder arranges to illegally cross the Infected Zone with her. As the journey moves from areas of bustling human activity to the quiet, overgrown jungle of "their" territory, the change in tone is palpable. Any odd sound might be the sign of total disaster, and the evidence of past conflict can still be found everywhere. Only this time, it's clearer who won.

Monsters is a wonderful mood piece that balances the two characters' quirky relationship with a setting that is deliciously laden with portent. The only reason it doesn't get the full five stars is a slight failure to reach its own amazingly sculpted potential. This comes about two-thirds in, when the movie's consant onslaught of buildup leads to a genuine monster encounter... and somehow the right mood isn't hit. I don't want to give too much away, but for clarity, here's what I'm not saying: I'm not saying the actors couldn't pull it off, because they actually seemed to have the chops. I'm not saying the movie is stingy with the monster, because it isn't, and I'm really not saying that the climactic moment of the movie is a letdown, because that happens elsewhere and comes from an unexpected direction, and it totally delivers.

This is the one of the best examples of speculative "what would it really be like?" science fiction I've seen on the screen. And while it might not scare your pants off, the idea has a way of haunting you. Highly recommended.

Whew! I'm done. When I said the last week of posting had no per-day cap, I didn't think I'd be the one to abuse it the worst. Cheers, and thanks for reading.

4 comments:

JPX said...

Wow, this sounds great! The one thing I'm not clear about is whether or not this is a "found footage" film? I might have to violate my "no watching horror outside of October" rule and check this out - I don't feel like waiting a year!

Octopunk said...

It is neither a found footage movie nor a faux documentary, but it is shot in a similar guerilla style. Kaulder is taking a lot of photos but there's no video camera "in" the movie.

I read that the whole cast and crew would sometimes be just seven people crammed into one van, driving around Central America.

Johnny Sweatpants said...

Whew, that was an excellent final push Octopunk! It took me for freakin' ever but I finally finished reading every review, updated the Monster List and added links to all the reviews from Scorrorthon. Now commment on everyone's hard work over the past week..

This movie sounds pretty sweet. I'm very curious to see what the monsters look like (neither you nor Trevor posted a full picture of the monsters in question). You sold me with your description of how "life goes on" after something that epic changes the world. I don't think I can wait another year either!

Catfreeek said...

I liked Monsters as well and when you said, "when the movie's consant onslaught of buildup leads to a genuine monster encounter... and somehow the right mood isn't hit." You totally hit the nail on the head, but the atmosphere of the film is terrific. BTW, I finally finished reading and commenting on all the reviews starting with your barrage.