Friday, March 11, 2011

It's a Monster Mash

While I'm sure the film I'm reviewing today did indeed screen in the Boston area upon it's release this past fall, I'm hard pressed to recall it. I do remember some of the hype for Monsters; trailers that didn't show much more than sporadic images from the film along with praise from various reviewers. Despite not many reveals (or perhaps because of it) I was seriously looking forward to the film's release, as it looked like not just any monster movie, but one with great human drama, as well.

And then... nothing.

The film didn't do much in the theaters (at least locally; it was a bigger hit overseas), and went forgotten by many film-goers, myself included. When trolling Netflix for the latest streaming films last week, I was surprised to find it among the newer titles available. When I failed to wake up in time yesterday to make the matinee showing I'd intended (maybe some other time, Take Me Out Tonight), I decided to rest and relax on the couch and let this film take me for a trip.

I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Toto
Six years ago, a NASA probe sent to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life breaks up upon reentry over Mexico, spreading debris over a wide area. That would be bad enough, if the crash hadn't also brought with it an alien infestation that over time infects most of the Central American country, creating "Monsters" that every so often attack the cities of those unfortunate enough to be in the area. Current day, we meet Andrew (Scott McNairy), a photojournalist who has sought for years to catch one of the creatures on film, content until now with carcasses and disaster areas. Now he finds his big break has met an unfortunate end, since his employer's daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) has been injured while supposedly on vacation in the area, and Andrew has been tasked with making sure she is taken home safely. With both air and sea travel quickly eliminated by embargoes instituted by the military,  the duo are forced to trek by land over the country's restricted zone and a chance to cross the US border's wall built to keep the "infection" from infiltrating the States.

Fun with murals!
If that last part seemed like a shot at the United States's immigration control policy, you wouldn't be the only one to think that. It seems likely the entire Monsters premise tackles the divisive topic of illegal immigration, from the wall to the journey people take to escape to America. The trip is not easy, dangerous even. However, as one character points out, if you don't have the money, you take the risk. Not unlike District 9, the 2009 film that liked refugees from the stars to real-life apartheid victims, the creatures in Monsters are meant to be those illegal immigrants who are widely despised by American citizens, who decry the loss of jobs to low-wage immigrants despite the fact that those same protesters wouldn't touch the dirty jobs the immigrants are often stuck with. The film makes its stance on the strict anti-immigrant policies employed by the US known, as well as its opinion of their effectiveness.

All the rage in Mexico these days
The film only employed two real actors, with most of the film's roles filled by ordinary people wherever they were shooting. The result in carrying so many non-actors meant that any scripted film wouldn't really work, and the result is a film shot more guerrilla-style, with the camera simply following the film's two leads into wherever they find themselves. It's fortunate then that the leads are as fun to watch as the rest of the film. McNairy is good as the disgruntled photojournalist Andrew. Andrew has no interest in what he sees as a babysitting job; he really wanted a shot at a big payday by capturing a monster attack with his camera. Able is even better as the daughter of a media mogul who is apprehensive about her upcoming marriage; After being hurt in Mexico, she's reluctant to even call her fiance. The tension between the two is wonderfully realized in a realistic buildup of friendship and mutual respect that fosters between them. The two actors connected very well over the course of the shooting in fact; McNairy and Able married last July, mere months before the film's release. While hardly the main reason the film works, the two certainly earn much credit for their efforts.

Following the Yellow-Bricked Road doesn't seem to be working out
Monsters was the first feature film from director Gareth Edwards, a jack-of-all-trades who made it on a shoestring budget, shot over 100 hours of footage, and then took it home and edited and added creature effects until he had a film that manages to convey its message while at the same time entertain its audience with a very cool and engaging story. At the very least, it was enough to convince Legendary Pictures to hand him the reigns to the newest reboot in the classic Godzilla franchise. Meanwhile, Monsters is easily among my favorite sci-fi films from the past five years, sharing the shelf with great titles like the aforementioned District 9, Moon, and Splice. A great film that deserves your attention if you haven't taken the time to see it yet.

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