Note: This post is rife with spoilers.
There’s a moment near the end of Gareth Edward’s Monsters (2010) that perfectly illustrates the film’s primary problem. The protagonists have managed to escape the alien-ridden infected zone that comprises the northern half of Mexico, crossed an unmanned U.S. border and entered Texas to find miles and miles of devastation and no inhabitants. Finally, as night settles, they discover an isolated gas station. The power is still on, so they contact help and make phone calls to their families. Then, while they wait, two of the movie’s titular monsters show up (silently, despite the creatures’ enormous size) and briefly terrorize the two hapless humans. Then, in a moment of poignant grace, the monsters share what can only be called an intimate moment: they stand facing one another, exchanging whale-like calls and touching tentacles, their bioluminescent bodies flashing hypnotic patterns. Then, just as suddenly as they appeared, they part ways and disappear into the darkness. But for the brief minute while they communicate, we get a sense of the creatures’ ability to feel and bond with one another.
If only one could say that much about the film’s human protagonists, Monsters might have been more compelling and less annoying.
Monsters is a film ostensibly about many things: a photographer who seeks out tragedy for personal gain; a woman engaged to man she doesn’t love; an alien-infested environment rebelling against human presence; two lost people coming together in the midst of apocalyptic events; and a thinly-veiled critique of human trafficking and U.S. immigration policy. Sadly, its lead characters are too stiff and dumb to serve as audience surrogates, and thus fail to lend these themes the appropriate gravitas or feeling.
The irony is that the actors, Whitney Able and the impossibly-named Scoot McNairy, were romantically involved in real life during shooting (and are now married). Their performances in the film, however, are leaden and tone-deaf. Nearly all of the dialogue was improvised, and it shows: conversations go nowhere, take bizarre segues, or are so repetitive, predictable or clichéd that it takes one out of the movie.
McNairy’s Kaulder is the whiniest, most clueless war photographer one could imagine. In every tense situation, his default behavior is to fall back on “horror movie character” default behavior. He asks stupid questions (i.e., “what is that?” in response to a monster growling, when he knows monsters are lurking nearby), complains about miserable conditions in what amounts to a war zone, wanders straight into obviously dangerous situations, and fiddles with his camera waaay more than any respectable professional photographer should.
Sam isn’t much better: where Kaulder is at once over-confident and clueless, she’s a stone-faced mystery, wandering dumbstruck through the movie like so much monster bait. Dark jungle full of monster noises? Let’s slowly walk toward it. Demolished house with a monster carcass on top of it? Let’s look inside!
Other dumb things that happen in the movie:
- The army convoy that is attacked in the opening (which is, oddly, the end of the film) calls for an airstrike on their own location. On their own location. This is the equivalent of saying, “we’re under attack, drop bombs on us.”
- After they meet and spend a night waiting for the ferry ride out of Mexico, Sam goes to ask Kaulder to have coffee with her. She finds him in his hotel room with another woman (a prostitute, we assume) and runs away, because supposedly she’s developed feelings for him. But he has her passport for some reason, and it’s been stolen when he gets back to his room (but not his camera, for some reason), and she can’t get on the ferry. Why would you need your passport to get on a ferry? Customs is at the U.S. border, right? Why she would rather risk going through monster-infested territory than getting stuck in customs is beyond understanding.
- In order to emphasize that the military has taken over the infected zone, every third shot shows low-flying planes or helicopters.
- At one point, they stand on top of a Mayan pyramid and see the U.S. border. Last time I checked, Mayan ruins were all down in the Yucatan. Indeed, the border is shown fringed with jungle, not the Sonoran desert we know is actually there.
- The characters learn midway through the movie that the monsters are attracted to light. And yet, when one is swimming through the river toward their boat, they can’t help but shine multiple flashlights at it. And when they find the gas station at the end, fully lit and visible from miles away, they’re somehow taken by surprise when the monsters show up.
- At one point, Kaulder sleeps with his head on Sam’s feet. As in, on the upturned soles of her feet. Umm … wat?
There are, strangely enough, plenty of things to admire about Monsters. Filmed for less than $500,000 in just a few weeks and with digital cameras, it features some gorgeous cinematography. Several shots—of the setting sun reflected on the river, painted murals of the monsters, the Mayan ruins, an obviously real devastated town—are striking and memorable. The performances of local extras have the fresh spontaneity we never get from the actors, who seem so caught up in trying to evoke Hollywood movie performances that they look wooden next to people who are obviously just being themselves.
The monsters themselves are a combination of interesting and perplexing. When finally shown fully, they appear as fifty-foot tall octopi with enormous crab legs. They move with a slow, lumbering gait and tower over everything, and yet somehow manage to evade the military and display the ability to sneak out silently on humans, attack, and fade into the jungle without a trace. The CGI is mostly well done; only when more familiar objects (like cars, planes and tanks) are involved do the effects look less than convincing.
As an experiment in low-budget filmmaking, Monsters can be easily labeled a success. Its visuals are on par with mainstream Hollywood releases costing ten times as much. It’s easy to see why the director, Gareth Edwards, was offered the chance to direct last year’s Godzilla remake. But as an acting and narrative exercise, it falls flat. There are moments of tension as the creatures stalk the main characters, but these end up being undercut by the B-movie horror clichés the actors fall into. As with many movies of the horror or monster genre, by the end, one ends up rooting for the monsters to gobble up the dumb characters to save the audience from any more of their grating behavior.
In the end, it feels like the film wanted to have something to say, but didn’t quite find that message. Two people are thrown together, wander through hell, sort of fall in love, get caught in the crossfire between the military and the monsters and … who knows? I can’t say I care, really. In comparison to all the desperate but resilient Mexicans shown in the film, the American leads are a couple of dim bulbs who don’t inspire much sympathy.
Monsters was a low-budget concept film that succeeds with some striking visuals, but is hampered by bad decisions made by improvising actors with no tangible chemistry.
Good: creepy monsters, colorful Mexican extras
Bad: unconvincing acting, forced romantic subplot, WTF? plot points
Should you see it? Only if you love giant crab-legged octopi.