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Noah Forrest

By Noah Forrest

Frenzy on the Wall: Where’s the Geek Love for Monsters?

The way the film geek crowd ate up District 9 last year, you might expect Monsters, another indie entry in the “aliens among us” genre, to be garnering similar geek buzzing this year, but it’s not. Monsters is not a perfect film, but I was kind of blown away by it, and I think it’s a better film than District 9. So where’s the love for Monsters?

If you, like me, haven’t heard much about Monsters yet, you may be wondering what exactly it’s about, because the title is a bit misleading. So allow me to sell you on why you should check this movie out, and why it deserves more accolades than it’s getting.

First, the creatures in the film are not monsters, per se, but extraterrestrials that look a bit like enormous octopi (and by enormous, we’re talking Godzilla-big). Second, the title is misleading because it’s not really about the creatures at all; they are merely the catalyst and the danger in the background of what is really a two-character love story.

The film is set six years from now and the world has adapted to the fact that a large chunk of northern Mexico has become overrun by the aforementioned aliens, prompting many travel restrictions in the area and the building of a huge wall on the Mexico-USA border (insert political POV here). But the crux of the story follows photojournalist Andrew Calder (played by Scoot McNairy), who is given the job of finding and ensuring safe passage home for the daughter of his boss.

The woman is, of course, a beautiful blonde named Samantha Wynden (played by Whitney Able). The film follows the two of them as they are forced, through a series of interesting circumstances, to travel through the “infected” zone in order to get home.

Well, I gotta say, I was absolutely riveted from start to finish and there are very few “action” scenes. This isn’t your typical monster movie; instead, it plays a bit like Before Sunrise meets Cloverfield, but better than the latter and not as good as the former. Even that is an unfair comparison because, despite some beats that feel eerily familiar, Monsters is a uniquely original picture. It doesn’t go the way you think it will either in terms of storyline or tone. Moments that you’re sure will be amped up are played down and scenes that feel innocuous are actually loaded with either meaning or intensity.

Monsters does what almost every modern genre film forgets to do: it gives us characters that we give a shit about. Characterization is done in such a formulaic way in most genre films these days; each actor is given simply one trait that they have to play up, so there’s the “crazy” guy or the “jock” or the “rebel” or the “prom queen” (maybe I’m just doing The Breakfast Club now). But the fact that Monsters has two characters who actually seem like real people and speak to one another in a way that doesn’t feel forced not only makes the film more captivating, but it feels like a revelation.

The man who wrote and directed the film, Gareth Edwards, deserves a great deal of kudos. I didn’t find out until after seeing the movie that it cost about $15,000 to make. Let me tell you something: if I had to guess, after seeing the film, how much it cost to make it, I would have said something like $30 million. This looks like a studio picture in terms of aesthetics. The creature special effects alone make this film look more expensive than it was and I don’t know how he was able to create such realistic looking special effects without it costing him many millions of dollars.

Whoever has a superhero movie should give this guy a call because not only can he make a film cheaply, but he can imbue it with heart and soul. Seriously, if this is what he can do for $15,000, then I can’t imagine what he’ll do when someone gives him millions (and you can bet that someone will).

Now, some people will think of District 9 when they see Monsters. Hell, I did, but it was only because I kept thinking, “Wow, this is so much better than District 9.” I know there are a lot of fans of District 9 (I wasn’t), but Monsters takes a similar concept and makes it less politically heavy-handed and more grounded in character development.

The effects in District 9 are extraordinary, but the storyline didn’t hook me as much as Monsters because I didn’t think the characters were particularly interesting or realistic.

District 9 has that documentary-like approach to the proceedings and yet it doesn’t feel quite authentic whereas Monsters, to me, felt like what would actually happen in these circumstances. I believed in the world of Monsters more and I believed in the characters, that they had lives and desires that didn’t start and stop with the aliens. It felt more akin to how the real world operates; despite the fact that strange things are going on, our instincts are still calibrated to find love or sex partners. If aliens did come to this planet, people would still want to find love regardless and not just focus on aliens non-stop, which is how most other films treat alien invasions.

The two lead actors are not always perfect in their roles, but I found both of them to be charming enough that I was won over by them. They have great chemistry to the point where you actually root for them to wind up together in the end. By the end of the film, I felt like both actors had found their groove — or maybe it was just that I fell into a groove with them — but earlier in the picture some of their dialogue fell a little flat, especially from McNairy.

The male lead is a more difficult role, perhaps, because he’s supposed to be this laconic journeyman type, and I wonder if McNairy was just playing that role accurately or if he was just a little unsure of himself in the earlier scenes. Able was impressive throughout the film and I liked that she didn’t overplay scenes and wasn’t reduced to being a shrinking violet; she’s a tough chick and I liked that Edwards didn’t write the character as someone who complains or whines. She doesn’t fall into the kind of stereotypes that many female characters in these films fall into.

The question for me is, why isn’t this movie getting the hype that District 9 got? This one flew under the radar until I saw it pop up on my cable provider’s On-Demand station, then I read a little bit about it and decided to check it out. This is the kind of film that I would expect the geek sites to be crowing about for months on end, creating some sort of buzz that would seep out and reach the masses, but alas it seems to be just eking its way through theatrical until it ultimately hits DVD where it will eventually be hailed as a cult classic.

Look, this is not the greatest movie ever made, but it’s rare to find a indie genre film this compelling. It’s beautifully shot, it’s intelligent, it moves swiftly, it’s got characters that we care about, wonderful special effects, etc. It’s got its share of problems too, including being somewhat on-the-nose with its political messages at times and a needless scene where Calder beds a girl before they embark on their journey. But the bottom line is that this is the kind of film that needs all the support it can get and will reward its viewers.

This is not the kind of film that builds towards some big blow-out action scene like it’s some videogame. Rather what it builds to is startling in what it both does and what it doesn’t do. What Edwards realized — which so many other filmmakers don’t — is that ending with an act of passion or love is so much more powerful than ending with an act of aggression or action. What Calder and Sam witness at the end of the film is achingly beautiful and really touching – not words that you can often use to describe the ending of a monster movie.

Note: Pay special attention to the opening scene, which is intercut with the credits. I had to re-watch it after the end of the film. It’s a killer.

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16 Responses to “Frenzy on the Wall: Where’s the Geek Love for Monsters?”

  1. 00gonzo says:

    I’m dying to see this after reading about it in Wired and hearing about it on NPR. Maybe this one will build up slowly as it gets a broader release. I, like you, was not smitten with District 9. I felt District 9 had too many plot holes and the documentary feel broke down half-way through the movie when it was no longer convenient to the action. Thanks for the review. Based on where you placed it (between Before Sunrise and Cloverfield), I’m betting I’ll enjoy it.

  2. traco says:

    The answer? Simple. Magnet/Magnolia routinely puts films online/VOD anywhere from two to six weeks before they release it in theaters, which significantly lessens said films’ appeal to most exhibitors who prefer a theatrical window before home video (in this case, VOD). This is the same company that did good-to-great business with THE HOST via a theatrical release before home video. MONSTERS could have been a contender.

  3. Michael Mayo says:

    Sorry, but as I said on my Facebook page, it’s a great looking film, especially for the budget, but the two leads aren’t particularly interesting. This is the dull version of “Cloverfield” where people wander around a torn-up landscape, don’t see very many monsters, and don’t have much to say before they’re rescued. The End. It’s perfectly evident why the movie isn’t doing well, and if it wasn’t for the VOD release, I doubt very many people would bother to watch it, let alone pay for it. Gareth Edwards has better films coming, but I’d leave the scripting to someone else.

  4. Joe G says:

    I just saw it last night and was blown away. I agree, the actors were a little rough at the beginning, but that might have been them getting used to the super-guerrilla style of the production process. I think the title might be holding them back from more success. “District 9” is just a much more catchy name.

  5. cdono says:

    I admired the way the character stories and the monster motif dovetailed at the climax, but I wish the couple had been more intriguing beforehand. There’s quite a lot of time spent on character development, but it often seemed like just a way to fill the gap before the next monster attack that Gareth could afford to mount; both leads are simply collections of romantic cliches. While I enjoyed it overall, I don’t think it is anywhere near the level of “District 9,” and the similarities between the two won’t help the film’s reception. And I agree that the title misrepresents the tone ; I saw it with a number of college students and most were bitterly disappointed.

  6. I fear that people going to monster movies must want boo-scares and shocks. District 9, despite some virtues, was loud, noisy and overblown, while Monsters is quiet, understated and smart.

    Howard Waldrop and I reviewed it today:

  7. Keil Shults says:

    I really like District 9, and am now very curious to see this picture. Until now I’d only seen its name bandied about on a few websites.

    Anyway, it seems like D9 had a big avanced marketing campaign, no doubt thanks to being produced by Peter Jackson. There was a lot of legwork done before the film came out, which is why so many people gave it a shot. If D9 had been unceremoniously released the way Monsters has, in a limited number of theaters with essentially no marketing behind it, I can assure you it wouldn’t have been a success.

  8. harry says:

    Depends on what city you live in. The movie’s generated a pretty solid following here in Austin.

  9. Keil Shults says:

    are you harry knowles?

  10. Joe Leydon says:

    Well, some folks certainly appreciate “Monsters.”

  11. Popcorn slayer says:

    Let’s see – it’s about 80-odd minutes of cinematic dead air with one good haunting moment at the end. That accounts for the lack of geek love. Edwards might make a good special effects supervisor, but he’s no filmmaker. Some effort put into writing a real script might have made all the difference. All these dopes aping Cassavetes (or reality television) don’t realize that his films weren’t really improvised as such – they actually had scripts – but I guess this disinformation will never be corrected.

  12. kurt says:

    Not to shill in the comments section here, but I did have about an hour long conversation with Gareth Edwards on the film, and it is transcribed in its entirety here. Anyone who really enjoyed MONSTERS (count me firmly in that camp, while I also liked it more than District9, I think that Noah is being a tad hard on that film, there are interesting characters and situations in that one too!) should check out the full transcript, here :

  13. Keil Shults says:

    I’m not saying Noah is doing this, but sometimes people who become enamored with a little-seen film tend to undeservedly bash a similar, more popular film, simply because they’re ticked that more people aren’t paying attention to the one they prefer.

  14. Dazza says:

    For once I have to strongly disagree. I’m fine with the fact that the alien stuff is shifted to the periphery and there’s very little action or thrills (you can still make things thrilling on a low budget but the few times they try and doesn’t work) but then you have to really deliver on the characterizations.

    At best, they’re okay. There are a couple character moments that rang true but in between its a whole lotta “meh” and a few of the more cringe inducing exchanges that I’ve heard this year. I don’t even blame the actors, I’m sure there are plenty examples of flat dialogue in good films but the director normally notices and asks for another take.

    Maybe that’s where the budget limitations were felt hardest, although I don’t buy that budget for a second.

    I’ve seen worse and kudos for getting a small scale alien invasion film made on the cheap. But it was a bit of a chore to sit through.

  15. Tom says:

    Noah, just to let you know, I’m not planning on reading this article. I haven’t seen Monsters yet, and it was barely on my radar. But with the glowing endorsement of your first two sentences, I’m going to see it tomorrow. I’ll let you know what I think after that.

  16. Tom says:

    Wow… thanks for letting me down, Noah. I was wildly disappointed by Monsters. There was no emotional resonance, the characters were completely uninteresting, and there was very little dramatic tension during the long stretches between action scenes. Also, was this movie trying to make a point about anything? I really couldn’t tell. Comparing it to District 9 is embarrassing.

Frenzy On Column

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon