Netflix Finds is an ongoing series of reviews for movies I stumble across on Netflix Instant. First installment: Monsters. After I saw Monsters I realized I’d read about it but had confused it with Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles. Which raises the question: how many shaky cam alien invasion movies can the market support?
Monsters (2010) is the movie Cloverfield should have been. It’s the first feature film from Gareth Edwards, a British filmmaker, and it’s a remarkably subtle and assured film, especially for a new director. Everyone these days talks about reboots, but Monsters is a reboot in the truest sense: it looks at the whole alien invasion/monster movie genre from a completely new angle, leaving out most of the carnage (though not the suspense) in favor of the human component of the story. More astounding still is the fact that it was filmed for $15,000 and budgeted at less than $500,000.
The story is simple: it’s six years after a NASA probe carrying alien life crashed in Mexico. The aliens, which resemble huge tentacled mastadons (or maybe land-based jellyfish), have taken root in Mexico, and a huge swath of the country is quarantined by the US and Mexican militaries. A US photojournalist, Andrew (played by Scoot McNairy), is hired by his boss to escort his daughter Samantha (played by Whitney Able) out of the danger area. They miss the last ferry out of an infected zone and are forced to make their way north by whatever means they can.
What follows bears closer relation to a documentary of a war torn country than to a monster movie. As Andrew and Samantha travel across the ravaged country, the focus throughout is on the land and the people who live there. Especially the people. According to reports, Edwards shot the film entirely on location, and many of the characters were local non-actors. It shows, because there are so many great little character beats and moments that ring absolutely true to life. It’s astounding that a movie about giant alien jellyfish should be this genuinely touching. As I watched, I was reminded of documentaries of people who live in blasted wastelands like Chernobyl or Chechnya, and the indomitable spirit of people who have been through the worst and have persevered. They’re just going on with their lives. In this respect, Monsters also subtly but quite unapologetically reminds us that the worst of catastrophe always hits the poor the hardest. These are the people who can’t evacuate, the people who raise their families in the midst of chaos.
There are children in this movie. Lots of children. Which, in case you’ve never noticed, is a major no-no in big budget end-of-the-world movies. Who wants to see kids as the giant wave eradicates New York? The entire point is the special effects: Oh, that’s what the Statue of Liberty would look like being vaporized. There’s nothing real about it, and no one really gets hurt. But here the focus is on who and what gets left behind when civilization collapses. And for the most part, that’s women and children.
Beyond its sociological/political aspects, Monsters is anchored by a complex and believable relationship between Andrew and Samantha (perhaps helped by the fact that the two actors are married in real life). Their characters are both archetypes (or stereotypes if you prefer): the renegade photojournalist and the spoiled little rich girl, but both actors bring enough nuance to the characters to not only sell them as real people but to invest viewers in their eventual fates. This of course is the shortcoming of most monster movies (I’m looking at you, Cloverfield). Andrew is a good guy most of the time, but he’s also kind of a self-centered dick; Samantha can be petulant and entitled but she’s also honestly seeking to see the world beyond her purview. There’s an ironic undercurrent to their journey as the rich Americans are now the ones paying human traffickers to smuggle them north.
The monsters are almost secondary in all of this, though there’s a few great set pieces where Edwards demonstrates that he can ratchet up the tension when it suits his purpose. That could be a problem for some viewers, since the film may be too subtle for genre fans and too genre (with a name like Monsters, double meanings and all) for mainstream fans.
Wiki reports that Gareth Edwards’ next project is a reboot of the Godzilla franchise. Never thought I’d look forward to that, but if anyone can pull it off, he can. And Gareth, when you’re done with your big budget debut, come back to the indie side of the ledger and make more movies like Monsters.
Here’s the trailer, though it’s cut to make the movie look way more typical than it actually is.