Then the opening began and it surprised me. Not just for what was happening on screen and that it was so sudden and revealing, but that it really wasn't what I was expecting, it was good, and it just got better and better.
Monsters sees a future world where a space probe sent by NASA is on its return flight from Mars and breaks up before returning to Earth. Crashing somewhere over Mexico it releases organisms which quickly grow and begin to infest the country.
Years later it has become so bad that an entire area of Southern America is designated the Infected Zone, and while people may live there, no one is advised to. Creatures roam, and during a specific time in the year they migrate to the water and sometimes cross over into major cities causing devastation.
When we come closer to the timeline of the story, the creatures have been venturing further from the zone and each time they are the American forces appear and attack them, ground forces from infantry to tanks to chemical ground launched missiles, and the air force using conventional weapons and other chemical weapons in an effort to stop them breeding and kill them when they reach their largest size. Oh, and they do get large, we're talking bigger than tower blocks.
The story begins just after a monster attack in a major city in South America and a photographic reporter is dispatched from local offices to check on the status of the daughter of the head of the world-wide company that he works for. She was caught in a hotel that was severely damaged in an attack and is currently in hospital.
When he reports back with her status, her father orders him to take her to the coast and get her aboard a ferry for America, for there is no way across land without crossing the Infected Zone.
While the opening of the film delivers something akin to Cloverfield (Filmstalker review), that's all behind us really quickly as we start to follow the main feel of the film, showing the aftermath and the effects of living alongside these creatures in South America.
I was surprised how suddenly the film had me engaged and especially since it wasn't what I thought I was going to see. I was engrossed, and that feeling continued throughout the film, and it wasn't because of that opening, it was what followed after.
The real draw of the film is that it stays focussed on the two leads and their growing relationship. It's much more personal and real, more about people and their humanity and it plays out much lower key than you would expect. For the most part we don't even see the aliens and the creatures till much near the end.
I really like the fact that the film does this, and while the bigger events are happening around the couple, we see their world through their eyes, on the ground. The film brings the small things around the couple to the fore and brings the reality of living with the creatures without showing multiple scenes of huge aliens attacking cities.
We see the signs for the sale of gas masks, simple government advisory signs to the people about the extra terrestrial zone, wearing their masks, cartoons playing on television that remind the children to wear their masks when they see the creatures, all in the background and reinforcing the way of life.
Couple this with the images of wreckage around them, buildings, deserted towns, destroyed cars and tanks by the roadside and pieces of planes, and it's very easy to believe the setting of the film without having to see the creatures. I was convinced of the situation through the normality of settings.
It was the couple themselves and their relationship that really held me through the film, and it's cleverly created and written to keep us there and keep that natural and realistic feel. The acting and the dialogue reflects this natural feel and I identified with scenes and lines so well, and I was actually surprised that the film had managed to create such a believable couple with similarly believable dialogue.
One of the great examples of this is when they had been waiting at the port overnight and had been drinking tequila late into the evening. When he walked her back to her room he stands awkwardly at the doorway and there's some excellent dialogue back and forth between them, some wonderful looks, quiet moments and looks in her face that tell the whole story. I love this scene and there are many other scenes like that.
The scene with the ferry boat operator was another one that struck me as being extremely natural and feeling very realistic. It's a strong moment and the interplay between the three of them demonstrates the easy feel and flow of the dialogue.
Some of the moments between the couple become really touching, even in the smallest of quiet moments. While on the boat they lie long ways with one resting their head on the other's feet, and then later the two are lying down to sleep away from each other and not moving close, she just looks at him and the glances, the things unsaid, all these aspects help to bring these characters to the audience.
One of the final moments between the two characters is a rather stock moment if you look at it and compare with other films, but here, with all the work invested in the characters, you really do feel something palatable. It carried real desire and passion for the characters and I believed this as much as any other moment.
Staying with the characters and the scripting for just one more moment, there were two lines that stuck with me for different reasons. The first shows the humour that carries between the two leads as well as some of the incisive scripting:
To photographer: "Don't you feel bad that in order to profit you have to see others hurt?" From photographer: "Like doctors?"
The other line begins to reflect the deeper comparison to real life that the film carries:
"This is what it must be like looking at America from the outside"
While it's far from subtle and is quite obvious, it's still there none the less. Aliens, extraterrestrial or alien, threatening the border of America and while they fight to keep them out with border control, military efforts and a huge wall to keep them out, or to close themselves in, and yet the aliens keep coming.
It is simplistic, but it doesn't harm the story itself, you're never groaning at any message coming through because although it's obvious you don't have the feeling that the film is preaching it in any way at all, just making the point.
There are some parallels within the story for the characters, particularly at the end, and it reinforces that real life theme but not leaving the boundaries of the story.
Now, an aspect I haven't touched upon are the creatures and the effects themselves, they are cleverly done and kept to a minimum, and when they are on screen they aren't the full focus of the screen, are in night vision, or are quite brief. Like the old adage, there's no need to show the creatures too much, especially when the film is not about the creatures.
I really liked Monsters, it takes a large scale story and focuses on a much smaller more personal storyline, a storyline that is really well scripted and acted out very naturally by the two strong leads. Natural and realistic is something that is a key to most of the film, trying to keep everything as believable and based in our reality as possible, and it works really well.
It's an engaging film that never gets too big for itself when it could so easily do so, and despite the obvious parallels with immigration, the moral message isn't being hammered home.
Strong and natural performances from Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able with a great script. Gareth Edwards has written and directed a clever and intelligent film that is far from what you might expect. I'd thoroughly recommend it.
UK IMDB Film Details
Filmstalker's EIFF 2010 Reviews