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Monsters DVD review

REVIEWS - DVD REVIEWS

Mystery, romance, thrills and imagination, in a poetic and haunting work of sci-fi cinema...

Monsters (2010)

Gareth Edwards' tale of a romantically crossed couple attempting to get home to America through the alien-infested plains and wilds of Mexico has many burdens to overcome, and shrugs them all off with poetry, thrills, imagination and a deep fund of invention rarely seen from a first-time director.

In the distant wake of District 9, Monsters seems cut from suspiciously similar cloth, although it was conceived well before that movie and manages to exceed its balance of SF thrills with humanity and warmth. Additionally, public approbation of a low-budget VFX project was undermined by the garbage that was the Strausse Brothers' Skyline, released shortly prior to Monsters. Here there was no script, only a tiny handful of professional actors among an army of 'real life' amateur performers - and one man doing the visual effects (Edwards himself) where there is normally a 40-strong CGI pipeline. Monsters should be a straight-to-disc disaster, and not the highly engaging, dark and lyrical romance that it actually is.

Scoot McNairy (In Search Of A Midnight Kiss) and Whitney Abel (All The Boys Love Mandy Lane) are the odd couple thrown together in a near/alternate-future where an Earth satellite has brought back new and savage life forms which have flourished in Mexico, forcing a huge swathe of the country to be closed off as an 'infected zone'. McNairy is a world-weary photojournalist ordered by his publisher to escort the daughter of his boss (Abel)  back to America after a pre-wedding vacation. Trouble is that the boats have gone, and there's no easy way back except across the infected zone where the squid-like aliens wreak havoc with all vehicles that traverse the area. The zone is littered with the debris of trucks and even planes plucked out of the sky. But it's the border or bust, as the couple brave a journey that they will never forget...

If you're looking for SF thrills, you'll not be short-changed by Monsters, even if does transpire to be the unlikeliest of 'date movies'. There's something terrifying and powerful in the infected wasteland, most chillingly evinced by the signs which warn of it and the immense destruction wreaked upon the landscape. In the end, however, you'll remember the movie for other reasons - none of which I intend to spoil for the viewer who didn't catch the cinema release.

This is certainly a travelogue movie, and anyone who has ever had the fortune to roam through strange and less-'developed' countries will understand the poignancy  and transience of the 'diasporan' experience. One doesn't even need to know the amazing fact that nearly all of the characters our heroes meet are played by local people (sometimes found only when the 4-person crew turned up to shoot a scene on the spur of the moment) in order to feel the abrasion between these cultured Americans and the less-privileged populace whose lives they weave into and out of throughout the fairly short (90 minutes) course of the film.

North America itself looms over the entire movie like a forbidding, sleeping animal, surrounded by a gargantuan complex of fences that hope to keep the 'invaders' out. The sub-text of xenophobia, protectionism and cultural division is delivered with effortless aplomb and barely a moment of real examination of the subject.

Monsters was made for the kind of budget that would barely pay craft services on most sci-fi movies that are worth watching, but the fortunate combination of the visual and lyrical imagination of Gareth Edwards and his extraordinary skill at CGI means that you don't need any qualifying factors to enjoy the movie; you can safely assume that it cost tens of millions, that the cast and crew were numerous, that fifty people did the visual effects - it won't make any difference to the impact of the movie; you'll just be open-mouthed when you discover, on the extras, what scant resources it sprang from.

It seems amazing that we have 'found' Duncan Jones and Gareth Edwards in the space of only a few short years. Let's hope they both fulfil their immense promise and potential. It certainly couldn't hurt the outlook for screen sci-fi...

Extras

With a runtime of 1hr 47m, you're not short-changed in additional material for this release, and it's as refreshingly free of 'special report' gloss as the main feature is of the bugbears and hinderances under which most CGI-driven sci-fi must labour.

There's a fascinating and very relaxed commentary from the director and his two actors - themselves a real-life couple - which is enjoyable to listen to in itself but is made even more amazing by Edwards' frequent revelations of what 'was there' and what he put in using off-the-shelf software like Adobe After Effects (in one case, the huge panel of a wrecked airplane is revealed to be nothing more than a photo 'floated' over the footage using AE - but like all of the 'not-impossible' effects, you'll not be able to spot it, or any of the others).

Behind The Scenes, Editing Monsters and Monsters VFX are what comprise the above-mentioned runtime, and these fascinating docs are cut down from pretty much the same jumble of hundreds of hours of footage shot in South America that Monsters itself was. The docs also take you behind the scenes, which in this case means in Gareth Edwards' flat - and even his bathroom, where he endearingly plays with a toy plane model whilst trying to figure out the right lighting for one of his CGI scenes. If you're jaded by the cynical run of disc extras that we normally get by way of documentaries, this fascinating tale is likely to refresh your palette, and even cause you to wonder if you shouldn't try and make a movie yourself.

Whether Edwards goes on to a worthwhile career or is swallowed up by the Hollywood machine in the wake of Godzilla, the extras on Monsters are destined to be of permanent interest to student film-makers and film buffs in general.

4 stars

Monsters is released from today.

See also:

A rationale for CGI luddites

Top 8 secrets of cheap sci-fi TV and movies

Cities In Dust: Urban apocalypse at the movies

Nine Non-Mainstream Movies Worth Seeing This Summer

5 movies that deserve a second look

Top 10 movie romances

Top 10 images of distant horror in the movies


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