Friday, March 4, 2011

Spotlight: Monsters, or Attack of the $500,000 SFX Film!

Monsters (Gareth Edwards, UK, 2010, 93 minutes)
Netflix: Six years after aliens invaded Earth, a security force maintains tenuous control in the Infected Zone straddling the U.S.-Mexican border. Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photographer, is documenting this war-torn area when he's interrupted by an unexpected rescue mission. Samantha (Whitney Able), daughter of a media mogul who just happens to be his boss, needs an escort home, and Andrew reluctantly takes on the job. Netflix link.

Monsters has generated quite a bit of buzz since its initial release, and it has been quite hot on the InstantWatcher tracker since being introduced to Netflix Watch Instantly just yesterday.  This is the kind of film that everyone wants to root for: a super-low budget sci-fi film ($15,000 equipment budget, total budget around $500,000, if Edwards's estimate is reliable). Monsters has both the strengths and the weaknesses of a good old fashioned genre film; it delivers the goods in terms of suspense and spectacle. 

The film does not start off strong, however, and it is at its weakest when it does not seem to be anything beyond a low-budget genre film.  The exposition-thick dialogue in the film's first few scenes didn't make the best initial impression.  When the two protagonists, photographer Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and publishing heiress Samantha (Whitney Able) first meet each other, Andrew introduces himself with the line, "I work for your father's publication."  Now, not to get too picky, but that line was written for the audience, not for Sam.  We need to know that her father owns a publication, but she already knows it.  And I'm confident that she would also know the name of that publication.  So I'm pretty sure that any non-expositional human would say something along the lines of, "I work for The Whatever Times" and the human on the receiving end would be able to make the connection, "Oh, he therefore works for my father."  The first third of Monsters has other moments like this, but luckily they are transcended by the charismatic performances by McNairy and Able. They have a genuine chemistry that helps us forgive the exposition that sometimes is forced upon them.  True, their characters are not much beyond a handful of character traits and some relatively simple goals and internal conflicts.  But they do give a degree of humanity to these characters, so that they seem neither campy nor cardboard.

At some point I forgave the expositional dialogue because other dimensions of the film were done with intelligence, wit, and charm. In other words, while Monsters does not go much beyond what the genre calls for, it does go well beyond simple fanboy sensibilities. If you were to take out all of the special effects, this would still be a well acted and extremely well shot and edited film. Even when the plot introduces somewhat artificial delays in the action, that doesn't effect the pace of the film because the performances are always engaging, the images are often quite striking, and the scenes snap briskly.  The relative lack of spectacle in the first half actually helps set the right tone for the more spectacular sequences as Andrew and Sam find their way into the Infected Zone.  Perhaps taking a hint from the initial dinosaur attacks in Jurassic Park, many of the more genuinely suspenseful sequences have a slow, quiet burn.  Like a classic horror B-film, Edwards makes the most of darkness, obstructions, and silence.  From a budget and special effects perspective it doesn't hurt that these sequences are mostly at night or with limited visibility (so that the seams don't show as clearly).  But at some point you stop thinking that this is good considering its means, and you simply think this is good stuff.

It is hard to discuss a film that involves a huge wall sealing off the Mexican-American border without considering ideology at some point.  But while the film does hint at an attitude towards the privileges of the American protagonists and the economic disadvantages of those trapped in Mexico outside of the Infected Zone, overall the allegorical aspects of the film are underdeveloped (which may be more infuriating, ideologically speaking).  There are also potential ecological allegories that also seem muddled or underdeveloped (the creatures depend up on trees to reproduce; but they also seem to feed off electricity and television broadcasts).  In other words, there are a lot of intriguing ideas floating around in Monsters, but the most focused ideas have to do with creating suspense, not creating coherent socio-political commentary. And when it does focus on creating suspense, Monsters does very well.

The film raises some interesting questions about the future of digital filmmaking, and the distinctions between genre and so-called independent filmmaking.  One way that independent filmmakers have distinguished their films from Hollywood studio fare has been to move away from spectacle and towards character development and story.  Part of that, of course, has to do with budget and resources, but another part has to do with a commitment to different aesthetic principles.  But will independent filmmakers stay committed to those aesthetic principles if the budget and resource obstacles are removed, and they are perfectly capable of making an effects-driven genre film if they want to do so?

My tentative answer is that advances in technology will not eliminate so-called independent sensibilities.  A good analogy to look at is to see what computers have done for independent and studio animation.  Sure, on the one end you have Pixar and Dreamworks animation; but you also still have Bob Sabiston (creator of Rotoshop, used on Linklater's Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) and even smaller-scale animators like Nina Paley (Sita Sings the Blues) using computers with a very different aesthetic sensibility.  In a way you have a similar distinction going on with Monsters, despite its dependence on genre conventions.  It is not nearly as loud and boisterous as The War of the Worlds or even District 9.  Instead, most of its strong non-spectacle moments have to do with quiet observations in sequences that could have fit in so-called independent features, stylistically speaking.  If anything, rather than eliminating independent sensibilities, new technologies might open up a wider stylistic range within genre filmmaking, which would be greatly welcomed, in my humble opinion. 

I look forward to your feedback and responses in the comments section below.  Meanwhile, here's a film that Edwards made for the Sci-Fi London 48-Hour Film Challenge, Factory Farmed.  -- JLK

Factory Farmed
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