Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is the latest in a long line of modestly budgeted genre movies helmed by visual effects artists who fancy themselves Gifted Filmmakers with Something to Say. But like Neill Blomkamp (District 9), The Brothers Strause (Skyline), and Robert Hall (Laid to Rest), Edwards can only offer up a pretty, unnecessary re-hash of better films.
Monsters would like to be the District 9 of the US/Mexico border conflict. It’s set in the near future, after a large part of Mexico has been quarantined to protect gigantic aliens that accidentally fell to earth aboard a deep-space probe. In the same way that Blomkamp fumbled his Apartheid allegory by not actually making a point, Edwards spends so much time on his narrative aliens/Aliens pun that he forgets to present us with a story worth telling.
The film centers on Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist on assignment in Mexico who receives orders from his boss to escort the publisher’s daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able) to safety following an alien attack. Instantly smitten, Kaulder spends the entire movie trying to get into Samantha’s khaki shorts—even though she’s engaged.
The two find themselves in the middle of an impending military crackdown. Within 48 hours, the entire area outside the “Infected Zone” will be sealed off, meaning no more passage back to the states. Kaulder pays a slimy ticket agent $5000 so that Sam can board a 7am ferry the next day. Instead of getting a good-night’s sleep, these crazy kids hit the town, eating, boozing and dancing, before wandering into a slum where thousands of dead villagers have been memorialized.
I’m falling asleep writing about this movie. So let’s shake things up, shall we? How about a list of Top Five Reasons Monsters Absolutely Doesn’t Work:
1. The Pronoun Game. A great indicator of Edwards’ clumsy dialogue is his Voldemort-like refusal to let his characters say the name of the paper that Kaulder works for. At least twice, characters refer to it as “the publication”—as in, “I work for your dad’s publication,” or “Do you know how much your father’s publication pays for pictures of dead kids?” This is a weird sticking point, but it speaks to the general awkwardness of Edwards’ pointless writing: Kaulder wears a shirt throughout most of the movie with “New World Chronicle” printed on the breast.
A hack will introduce characters with dialogue that sounds like it was written by a computer (“Sam, he’s your fiancée.”), instead of letting the story reveal information naturally. Runner-up in the Groaner competition: The aforementioned slum scene, and Kaulder’s out-loud observation that, “The vibe just changed”.
2. Cloverfield on Ambien. Maybe if the leads had been given room to flesh out their characters via performance, they would have been compelling to watch. But McNairy and Able wander through Monsters with the disaffected non-presence of people annoyed at crappy cell phone service rather than strangers thrown together at the apocalypse. I’ve never met a photojournalist, but there’s nothing world-weary or even smart about Kaulder; he’s a poon-hound with a tramp-stamp and the kind of stoner ignorance that would get him killed in the first act of any other monster movie (Why turn over your hotel-room mattress looking for a passport that’s clearly been stolen by some chick you picked up at a Mexican bar? Do you think she played a prank by hiding it in the room? Or is it more likely she skipped town?)
And I’m not sure what the hell Sam is supposed to be. She’s the daughter of a wealthy publisher, but Edwards isn’t clear whether she’s Paris Hilton or a marine biologist. She’s trapped in an engagement to a guy we know nothing about, except that he doesn’t have the scruffy, alcoholic charms of the glorified paparazzo she met six hours ago. Edwards decides not to complicate his story by bothering us with nuance; instead, he has Sam reconsider her engagement without so much as a throwaway line like, “He’s married to his job”, or “He secretly beats me.”
People give Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield a lot of shit for its annoying characters, but I at least knew who I was following on the adventure; the key word being “adventure.”
3. Apocalypse Soon(ish). As they make their way towards the wall, our heroes meet up with a band of paid, armed escorts. Around a campfire, they tell stories of the creatures and about how the US uses bombing raids to kill the alien eggs, which grow in trees. We get a lot of metaphor-lite talk, but I wondered what Edwards was intimating here: Is he saying that we can’t build walls around our country because eventually we’ll be overrun by an alien menace, and that the best defense is to burn down their nests? Or is the wall bad because we should invite the aliens onto our land, even though we don’t speak their language and they’ve proven incapable of not destroying everything in sight?
Regardless, we trek through the jungle with these people as they hear spooky noises and see tentacles suck a wrecked fighter plane into a swamp. Until the “big attack” in which all the non-whites are torn to shreds, Monsters relies on the horror movie equivalent of a cat jumping out of a closet for a good hour or so.
4. “So, what’s new?” After making it through the wall (which seems pretty useless, considering A) it doesn’t look to be quite as tall as the creatures and B) there’s a giant, unguarded, un-gated passageway right in the middle), Kaulder and Sam discover that the US side of the border has been devastated and deserted, with “Evacuation” signs posted everywhere. They encounter no one on their walk to a fully functioning, abandoned gas station, save for a crazy lady pushing a shopping cart.
At the gas station, Kaulder phones his son and Sam calls her fiancée, and they both tell their loved ones how much they can’t wait to get home. At no point do they ask if there’ve been any news reports in the last two days about, um, the creatures breaching the wall and wiping out the border towns. It’s just, “Okay-see-you-soon-man-what-a-nutty-weekend” chitchat.
5. Seismic Tippy-toes. The big climax sees Kaulder and Sam awaiting a military escort back to civilization. While they’re on their respective phones, a giant alien squid creeps up on the gas station and uses its (ahem) really convincing CG tentacles to probe the inside of the store for signs of life. Maybe if I hadn’t seen this exact scene in Skyline last year—or in Steven Spielberg’s remake of War of the Worlds, or in Byron Haskin's original War of the Worlds—I might have been concerned for poor Sam, trapped behind the counter.
But all I could think was, “How does a sky-scraper-sized monster sneak up on anything?” My puzzlement broadened a few minutes later when—after making out with another giant squid alien that magically appears—the first monster stomps away, shaking the earth and making the screeching sound its species had bellowed during the previous ninety minutes.
I'm sure this sounds very nit-picky, but when slogging through a movie where nothing compelling happens, the mind is free to wander, and to wonder about things like why every TV monitor in the film shows the exact same footage from the exact same angle of a single alien attack; I don't trust Edwards as a storyteller enough to accept it as a comment on the media, so I think only "cut-and-paste" before moving on to the next distraction.
As I mentioned earlier, Gareth Edwards is a special effects artist. He did, I believe, all of the CG work on his own, and it shows. Monsters is not a good movie to watch in high-definition; the one thing the director does right—which is photograph Mexico beautifully—is undone by waxy models of tanks and trucks driving by and object wreckage whose ground shadows look like Smudge Tool accidents. Some of the digital elements work, but 80% of them look too polished or too in-focus to convince us that they’re part of the world the actors inhabit.
I get the feeling that Edwards watched a bunch of recent creature-features and thought, “I could do that!” Then he did. But that’s all he did—replicating what has come before without a drop of insight or innovation. He was recently tapped to direct another remake of Godzilla, a film famous for being an entertaining film with a well-crafted anti-nuclear-arms message. I’m sure he thinks Monsters has a deep message, too, but it’s not as profound as the one I have for him: Hire a writer next time.
This review also appears at Cinelogue.