Directed by Gareth Edwards
A cloud of extra-terrestrial excitement descended on TIFF this year as the chatter surrounding Monsters reached fever-pitch amidst the nooks and crannies of the festivals main screening space, as SFX artist turned director Gareth Edwards’s remarkable debut made its Canadian premiere. Monsters has already been pigeonholed as this year’s District 9, a somewhat lazy comparison as although they share similar aesthetics, the film is far more of a companion piece to Duncan Jones’s similarly acclaimed Moon from last year. Whilst District 9 was a solid, entertaining example of genre engineering despite its bludgeoning anti-racism message, Monsters surpasses its alleged progenitor as a far more finessed and subtle piece of work, a film which marks Edwards as a natural story-teller. This consistently surprising and lithe film retains a genuine sense of wonder and mystery in its not necessarily being the fanboy-friendly monster-mash that its misleading marketing may have you believe.
Six years ago, a NASA probe disintegrated upon on re-entry to the Earth’s atmosphere and deposited an alien species’ spores across the central cartography of the American continent, these seeds consequently partitioning the northern United States from Mexico with an infected zone that is perilous to traverse due to a population of deadly, exoteric immigrants that have contaminated this new dominion, the bacteria having evolved into barely glimpsed behemoths whose migrative morphology and hostile behaviour is still under human dissection. Photo-journalist Andrew Kaulder has been assigned to the area with instructions to document the current situation, his corporate paymasters instructing him to obtain footage of atrocities on the indigenous human populace, and having been promised some particularly lucrative remuneration the more heart-wrenching his reportage. This questionable activity is soon superseded by orders to escort the abandoned daughter of one of his bosses from a threatened Mexico back to fortress America, a journey that the couple attempt to complete via a ferry trip which would ensure they circumnavigate the polluted area. Their simple plans are foiled when an impromptu indiscretion on the part of Andrew results in Samantha’s passport and money being stolen, leaving them both with only one dangerous option to get home – to penetrate and surpass the chthonic perils of a land crossing across these blemished sectors, the only feasible route to the safety of the northern territories.
Shot guerrilla-style in South America with indigenous people taking the roles of locals and guides for a budget in the tens of thousands of dollars, Monsters first triumph is its evasion of the usual storytelling framework as the traditional model of introduction to this future world would be to prologue the initial discovery of the otherworldly species and then document the fledgling fracas between the extraterrestrials and homo sapiens. These conventions are side-stepped in favour by placing the activity in media res, this brave new world being subtly textured with a paraphernalia of background details embroidered into the frame – from the signage and rolling news reports, to the graffiti and newspapers – and through all these elements a very credible future world is obliquely crafted, enabling the tension to focus on Andrews and Samantha’s hazardous voyage and their flourishing romance (the two have a convincing on-screen chemistry culled from a real-life relationship) in the midst of these epochal events which cement the film’s real focus and ambition. An early scene, set amidst a glittering composition of thousands of candle-lit graves of Mexican victims of the war marks the film’s atmospheric credentials, a skittish Walter Salles-derived aura meshed with a Cloverfield jeopardy, with Monsters wielding a visual dexterity far beyond its CGI proficiency.
Like all the best speculative fiction, Monsters‘s concerns are timely, its themes finessed through an imaginary future scenario to illuminate present day cultural and societal concerns, and the notions of immigration and integration flutter throughout the film, with the symbiotic assimilation of the invaders into the Earths bio-system serving as a potent metaphor for the debates that continue to rage across Europe and the United States. Whilst these themes are clumsily handled in one dialogue-heavy scene toward the end of the film, the net result is a film with more passion and integrity in one of its frames than the bloated tentpoles being churned out for one thousand times its budget on the Californian coast, not to mention a film with a fresh and unique ocular texture, a modesty and deftness of touch in comparison to the usual all pervasive visual pollution that poisons most contemporary genre pictures. The SFX in Monsters are integral to the film’s purpose and design rather than in thrall to it, and the alien species etymology is credible and curious, culminating in a breath taking final sequence that replicates the initial awe of the dinosaurs revelation in Jurassic Park. Like a youthful Terrence Malick directing an early script revision of Close Encounters of The Third Kind, Monsters is an exhilarating triumph that serves as a strong contender for the film of the year.