MONSTERS is a movie that has been much-hyped as a totem for how movie-making has become democratised by cheap digital cameras and editing packages. The young British director Gareth Edwards has proved that a talented visual effects artist can create a horror movie that looks every bit as slick and full of special effects as the largest Hollywood studio with a few digital cameras and an editing package on a laptop. I'm not sure what all this fuss about laptops is. I mean, if you have a team of CGI animators and visual effects artists in LA or Soho they're basically just using a bunch of computers. The idea of a "laptop" as somehow impoverished and amateur is nonsense. And I say that typing this on an Alienware M17x with a terrabyte of internal storage and enough speed and power to conquer mainland China. However, in fairness to Gareth Edwards, he's made this point on many a TV and radio show. Indeed, he has also admitted that the budget for his "miraculously low-budget but hi-fi looking" movie isn't as low as people think. This is a little disingenuous though - he is modest but then again he's all over the media talking about how gonzo his filming style was. To hear him tell it, he basically decided to make a monster movie, got two young actors, a translater and a van, roamed up and down Mexico shooting people and places that caught their interest, improv'ing dialogue around a set of pre-defined scenes. I have this Scooby Doo vision of pesky kids harassing Mexicans for access to their tavernas.
At any rate, this is a rather nastier and long-winded start to a review than I normally cobble together, and actually doesn't reflect on my feelings about Gareth Edwards' work but rather for the sycophantic, near-hysterical reception it has received among the mainstream reviewers. They are so proud of themselves for having discovered a gonzo movie - a movie to stick it in the eye to Avatar - that they are positively falling over themselves to praise it. It's as though everything else in the film must be great because, hey, it was made by a plucky Englishman in his bedroom! So, let's all stand back and take a long hard look at MONSTERS and ask ourselves what we'd think of it if we didn't know how it was made. If someone gave us a tenner and told us to pick a movie and we watched it, what would we think? And the answer to that question is, "yeah, it's okay, but it's not really scary, or original is it?"
Essentially the movie is a two-hander between Scoot McNairy and his real-life girlfriend Whitney Able. He plays a rough and tumble photojournalist, and she plays a rich girl who ran away from her fiancé, and whose father has charged the photojournalist with bringing her back home. And so we get a planes, trains and automobiles story where two young good-looking kids discover that, basically, they really really like each other, and that while they both want to get home, they want to get home for each other. This, ladies and gentlemen, is nothing new in cinema. Moreover, it's so obvious, the dialogue so clichéd that it's about as annoying as the heroine's oh so edgy, hipster haircut.
Now, the backdrop for this lo-fi road movie romance is the Mexican-American border. Back in the day, nasty evil alien squid things landed in Mexico and were cordoned off in an "infected zone". When this story begins, aliens are just a fact of life, an ever-present threat against whom the humans lash out, descending to practises that violate basic principles of humanity. DISTRICT 9 anyone? Except MONSTERS wishes it were DISTRICT 9. It creates a walled border between Mexico and America, with aliens kept "outside" and people with passports finding it easier and cheaper to get across. The movie deliberately raises the analogy of present-day immigration politics and then doesn't do anything subtle or sophisticated with it. Where DISTRICT 9 was closely observed, satirical and scabrous, MONSTERS is ham-fisted, amateur and superficial. Essentially, there is no substitute for a script. And, as for the praise heaped upon a lo-fi film for looking good, yes, to be sure, the cinematography is superb. There are scenes of a sunrise on the water that are just breath-taking. And the use of CGI to replace real bill-boards and signs with Monster related iconography is very well done. But the monsters themselves are lolloping giant squid and look about as scary as a Pepe the Prawn.
So, in the final analysis, MONSTERS is beautifully shot and throws up some interesting ideas. But as romance, it's hackneyed, and as horror movie, it isn't scary, and as political allegory, it doesn't even try to get beyond the interest of its initial concept.
MONSTERS played the festival circuit and opened in the USA, Kazakhstan, Russia, Canada and Australia earlier this year. It is currently on release in France, Indonesia and the UK. It opens on December 9th in Germany and on January 20th in 2011.