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Monsters (2010, UK)

08/07/2011

Director: Gareth Edwards      Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able

Cheap doesn’t always have to mean bad and as far as the British film industry is concerned, it’s just as well. Not renowned for having bundles of money at their disposal, British filmmakers often have to make do with minimal budgets and scant resources. For Monsters’ writer, director, cinematographer and visual effects supervisor Gareth Edwards this situation clearly seemed less of a handicap and more of an opportunity to break out of his years of digital effects work for TV and make a name for himself in the world of feature films.

It’s simple concept is budget friendly. After a space probe has crash landed in Mexico, alien life forms it has brought to Earth with it have grown and multiplied creating an “infected zone” on the border between Mexico and the U.S.A. Photographer Andrew Kaulder (the hilariously named Scoot McNairy) is instructed by his magazine owning boss to find his daughter Samantha Wynden (Able) and see her safely home to the ol’ U.S. of A. When their initial plans of a simple boat ride go awry they are forced to undertake a perilous trek through the infected zone in order to escape the alien menace.

It’s a very self contained piece, concentrating on the relationship between the two main protagonists, a relationship that grows closer as their journey unfolds. McNairy and Able do a fair job of things, being largely convincing and expressing their imperilled state of mind rather well. The only problem is their performances are overshadowed by the incessant barrage of SFX background detail that Edwards has insisted on embedding at every opportunity.

It’s this ever-present, computer generated icing on the cake that I suspect has garnered Monsters most of its attention. Given that it was done more or less at home (albeit by a professional SFX artist) it certainly seems to punch above the weight of both budget and crew. The climactic scene where we finally get a proper look at some of the alien creatures is certainly worthy of any major blockbuster I’ve ever seen (possibly even better) and there are a number of particularly well executed shots at various points in the film. My issue with the use of CGI here is that there’s just so damn much of it! Just because you can digitally insert a crashed helicopter anywhere you want in your footage doesn’t mean you should. Or a burnt out car. Or a tank. Or any number of background accessories clearly intended to set the scene but which sometimes intrude into the action a little too much for the good of a film that pivots on the interplay between two actors.

Even the various road signs and billboards that appear with alarming regularity in the film (although in fairness usually appropriately) turn out to be post production effects spawned in a computer. Sometimes you would be surprised to find this fact out, sometimes it is fairly obvious that they have been airbrushed in digitally. I think this is where I start to have a fundamental issue with the way this film has been made. In one of the accompanying documentaries on the DVD Gareth Edwards proclaims that he doesn’t understand why anyone would bother to physically make a sign, take it out on location, put it in place and film it when you could just drop one in digitally later. It’s an interesting question, perhaps one that would be better levelled at the likes of Ridley Scott, Francis Ford Coppola or the late, great Stanley Kubrick. Personally, I think the answer is that it does make a difference. The complex, realistic sets of Alien or the highly detailed backdrops of Blade Runner might not seem worth the bother to a man who makes his money designing them digitally but to an actor and a cinematographer they will doubtless make a massive difference. When Giger’s alien bares it’s secondary teeth, dripping resinous drool it does so with a startling authenticity that you just don’t get from a computer generated image.

That’s not to say the effects in Monsters are low rent, British TV level CGI, they most certainly are not. In fact for the most part the technical achievement on show is actually rather impressive. Also you have to make dispensations for the budgetary concerns. Apocalypse Now nearly killed Coppola with his insistence on authenticity and it went massively over budget. CGI is an obvious way to render a film that has an epic feel without the accompanying epic budget. It just does not feel as realistic as a well executed mechanical effect and the endless acting at thin air must take its toll on the actors involved. This is especially true for this film, where Edwards didn’t use traditional guiding structures to help the actors visualise the effects, instead allowing them to imagine what was going on and then building the effects round the camera footage. A sign of a director with extraordinary vision or a chancer who has cruised by, making it up as he goes along? Either way it doesn’t matter too much, considering that this is a competently put together sci fi thriller that’s heavy on the District 9 vibe (complete with an ambiguous line sketched between human and alien) and looks rather pretty, even if sometimes this same eye-catching look threatens to overwhelm the delicate characters at the centre of things. Add to that the fact that it gives Hollywood a run for its money in terms of special effects (and blows Hollywood out of the water for sheer production value) and you have a film that is definitely worth checking out.

 

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