REVIEW: Microbudget Creatures Don't Disappoint in Monsters
So what would an alien invasion film directed by Terrence Malick look like? It initially seems like Monsters, the elliptical, no-bucks debut of British writer/director/effects guru Gareth Edwards, might offer a persuasive hypothetical answer. Instead the film is more credible as a sort of cinematic emergency drill: This is what might happen if a Terrence Malick film were invaded by an Ed Wood movie mellowed out on some powerful 'ludes.
A lunky immigration allegory that takes some cues from last year's District 9 and flattens them, Monsters imagines a Mexico overrun by enormous, sky-walking, tentacled creatures from outer space; the fantastically useless wall the United States builds to keep the unwanted aliens out; and how two hipster types might behave if they had 24 hours to get back home. The hipsters are Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a vampiric photojournalist, and Sam (Whitney Able), the daughter of Kaulder's boss. The former has a snippy manner and what appears to be a tramp stamp, the latter a platinum anime haircut and a very fine set of legs, both of which are duly showcased during the couple's run for the border. Desperate to get out of the "infected zone" before the monsters -- who seem to have been assimilated into both the 24-hour news cycle and the lives of the long-suffering Mexicans -- reach what little pristine territory is left, they purchase the help of some local, heavily armed sherpas.
Kaulder is a player as well as diffident jerk, an unhappy combo that nevertheless breaks down Sam's defenses over their first marooned evening of tacos and tequila. Although he can't quite get across her motel room's threshold -- Sam is engaged, and her status marriage and life of alien-free oblivion awaits -- the pilot match is lit. Kaulder's not really into waiting, and so when Sam finds a strange woman in his bed the next morning... Wait a second, is this a horror movie or an episode of The Hills? (Don't answer that, smarty.)
Made for a well-publicized $15,000, Monsters could easily use its budgetary constraints as an explanation for its scarcity of big-ticket, CGI scares. But Edwards seems more interested in using pacing and tone to subvert genre expectations than in getting super-freaky, and he imbues the first half of the film with a lyrical, almost elegiac cast. Shot on location in Mexico and Central America with a high-speed digital camera, Monsters was strikingly photographed by Edwards himself. The colors are pleasingly stark and saturated, the atmosphere -- particularly during an early expedition through a bayou -- both stirring and becalmed. There's an intriguing rhythm of deliberate and prolonged foreplay; it's fun to watch, despite the enduring blandness of the leads. I hardly cared whether the central couple would converge, but if Edwards didn't hit it with those aliens before the lights came up, I was going to be mighty frustrated.
Alas, anticlimax is more his thing, at least this time out. It would seem he's also big on trite, geopolitical philosophizing: At the border Kaulder and Sam trade things white people like to say when confronted with their country's overweening imperialism, like, "It's different looking at America from the outside in," and "Let's talk about something else." The logic of the film's outlandish scenario falls apart in the last act, as all of the questions suspended by the film's hypnotic promise come rushing home to roost along with Sam and Kaulder. The trippy finale will make you wish Edwards had reinforced his metaphors with a little more meaning, and that his dance of the monsters amounted to more than pretty, empty effect.