I like the idea that the first film review on this blog was December 2009 and about that sci-fi epic Avatar and the last review of 2010 will be a film that can be considered the anti-Avatar, the low budget Monsters.
Six years ago a space probe was launched to collect samples. On its return, it broke up over Central America leaving in its wake new biological life. Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is a cynical photojournalist working for New World Chronicle in Mexico. He is searching for the perfect shot of a monster, especially one causing tragedy. He is asked to escort an injured Sam Wynder (Whitney Able), daughter of the man who owns New World Chronicle, to a sea port to get her back to America. Unfortunately, they have to travel overland through Central America to the US border.
I like Monsters precisely because it manages to do what Avatar didn’t do: build believable, nuanced characters (thanks to improvised scripts and great acting), whilst using clever CGI as opposed to bombarding the audience with eye-candy.
This is the debut movie from Gareth Edwards, a chap who previously worked on BBC documentaries. Monsters is famous for being shot with two actors, a small crew with a lot of the special effects being done at Edwards’ home for a budget under a million dollars.
This film is much more a “meet the locals’” road-trip that allows real life couple and McNairy and Able to interact and improvise with each other and their surroundings. The chemistry worked and the character growth felt natural. The conversations were beguiling and mirrored reality.
The story-telling is subtle as you realise that the people living under constant threat of the monsters understand them and know their migration patterns. The characters’ regard news reports with faint disinterest but know when to take cover.
The special effects are wonderful without needing to dominate the screen. The best way to describe them is unobtrusive and ingenious as they build world, persuading us that it FEELS real.
Wrecked hotels, CGI tanks and black hawks, rubble strewn cities with military hardware poking out, the newly built wall on the US border. There are adverts and cartoons that are telling kids how to put on gas masks, murals commemorating the dead and evacuation signs. When monsters do show up they are… interesting but the film is more concerned with the characters and their journey.
The fact that the film builds a world as compelling as Avatar and gives characters with chemistry and an interior life (as opposed to cut-out clichés) means that Gareth Edwards has made a film worth watching again. The reason I say this is because whilst both films work in the cinema, it is only Monsters that I would ever consider re-watching again on any screen, big or small. It has depth and grows as a film and allows the possibility that an audience can discover something new and care about characters unlike Avatar which, upon serious contemplation, felt like a one-shot visual visceral experience.