October Horrorshow: Monsters

And so we’ve reached the end of the October Horrorshow Giant Monstershow. For the last month, we’ve seen giant apes, giant dinosaurs, giant insects, giant arachnids, giant men, giant lizards, giant gelatinous masses, giant leeches, giant rats, giant rabbits, giant birds, and even giant shrews. We’ve seen so many giant creatures of so many shapes and forms that the word ‘giant’ has become subject to semantic satiation. It’s become a mere shape in the text, devoid of all but intrinsic meaning. Still, we soldier on until the job is finished.

We close out the Giant Monstershow with the debut feature from writer/director Gareth Edwards. Monsters, from 2010, is the flick that put Edwards on the map, getting him the gig for the 2014 Godzilla reboot, which led to him being tapped for Rogue One.

The monsters in Monsters are alien beings. After evidence of life elsewhere in the solar system was discovered, a NASA probe was sent to investigate and bring samples back to Earth. But, the probe broke up during reentry over Mexico. Not long after, alien creatures began to appear. Northern Mexico was evacuated and turned into a quarantine zone, where, during the alien creatures’ annual breeding cycle, the American military has created a free fire zone, where they bomb anything that moves.

The monsters are similar in appearance to octopi, squid, or cuttlefish, although they walk on land. They have many appendages and are capable of bioluminescence. They are also big — towering over people and buildings.

The film follows Scoot McNairy as photojournalist Andrew Caulder, and Whitney Able as Sam Wynden, the daughter of the publisher whose publication Andrew works for. Andrew is wandering around southern Mexico getting shots of the action along the edges of the quarantine zone. He gets a call from his boss to check on the welfare of Sam, who has fled an unhappy life back home for some sort of adventure. After finding Sam, Andrew’s job becomes to escort Sam to the coast, where she should be able to find a ferry that will take her back to the states, and Andrew can then get on with his work. But, that wouldn’t make for a very good story, so Edwards maneuvers his characters into having to traverse the quarantine zone on land to get back to the states.

That setup points to a film with all sorts of frenetic action, but that isn’t the case. The monsters in this film are backdrop to Andrew and Sam. The two are polar opposites. Andrew is gruff, with a somewhat short fuse. He doesn’t have much of an eye beyond the day, and it’s indicated in his backstory that heavy responsibility isn’t for him. Meanwhile, Sam is a spoiled rich kid. Her trope doesn’t get much more complicated than that. Edwards chose to slather his two leads in cliché, and then develop them into dynamic characters as the film goes on. That’s a special type of pretension in a first-time filmmaker, but he pulls it off. There is little about these two that would make a viewer care, but Edwards goes about his task in deliberate fashion, until, by the time the two make it to the border, we are somewhat invested in their fates. It was hard work making me care about these two selfish nitwits, but Edwards did it.

But, there are monsters in this film, right? There are. They’re just not as present as one would expect in a monster flick, or would want. Edwards is very sparing with them. Part of that reflected the needs of the plot, but the miniscule budget probably had more to do with that than anything else. Edwards made this flick for $500,000. That’s chickenfeed in the movie business. Mostly, that lack of resources doesn’t show. Where it does make itself apparent is in the CGI. Most of the CGI shots are cartoonish and don’t integrate into the scene all that well. They’re not bad shots. It’s just that one can tell there wasn’t a lot of render time available. Edwards husbanded his resources where he needed to, however, and the creatures look great for a grand reveal at the film’s climax.

Monsters is not a rip-roaring creature feature. As a character study, it’s somewhat thin, despite the hard work Edwards did in developing his main characters. The pace could be slow for many viewers, but it’s balanced out by fine storytelling. In many ways, Monsters is a fleshed-out one paragraph movie pitch, but it’s done with care and quality.