Thursday, November 4, 2010

Monsters - Home Video Review

Release Date: October 29, 2010

Review Vital Stats:
Service: Xbox Zune Marketplace
Download Type: Rental
Picture Quality: HD

Loves: Fresh ideas with old concepts
Likes: Minimalist filmmaking
Hates: Being beaten over the head with messages

"After six years, they're no longer aliens. They're residents."

A few years back I would I have never guessed that the best alien/monster movies we would be seeing would not be the Independence Days or War of the Worlds but much smaller and more focused films. The independent movie scene has invaded the alien invasion genre and has pretty much won at this point. A couple years back there was the surprise hit Cloverfield, then last year there was District 9 which actually got a Best Picture of the year nomination. Now we have independent films such as Skyline, which comes out in a couple of weeks, and this film...Monsters. The big budgeted alien epics of years past have been replaced with these much smaller scale stories (although Skyline looks pretty epic) and I for one like the direction this genre is headed in.

We are told that NASA has discovered the possibility of alien life outside of our solar system and has decided to send out a probe to investigate their findings. When that probe returned it crash landed near the U.S. and Mexico border. Soon after the crash there started to be mass sitings of a new life form and almost immediately half of Mexico is quarantined as an Infected Zone. Six years later the area between the U.S. and Mexico is now a breeding ground for this new and mysterious life form. Military forces are constantly trying to contain these Monsters while simultaneously attempting to eradicate them.

Andrew and Samantha trying to get home any way they can.
The film opens with a scene shot with what looks like a home video camera involving a group of U.S. soldiers riding through a neighborhood all geared up when they are suddenly attacked. We see quick clips of weapons being fired, bodies on the street, hear people shouting orders and screaming. Then we get our first glimpse of a rather large creature towering over buildings as it ravages the city. It doesn't take long for the military to call in some support when we see a missile fly in rapidly and take the monster out. Those are literally the first couple of minutes of footage you see which shows you exactly what these monsters are capable of which is needed because for better or worse we don't see them again for a while.

The next day we see the aftermath of the incident and learn that this all went down in Mexico. That is when we meet freelance photographer Andrew Kaudler (Scott McNairy). He has been sent by the man who pays his bills to find a woman that was at ground zero of the previous evenings attack. He finds her in a local hospital and learns that she is Samantha Wyden (Whitney Able), the daughter of one of the largest magazines he shoots for. She was in the middle of a small vacation away from her fiance when the shit hit the fan. Andrew is then tasked with getting Samantha out of town and back across the border and past the infected zone safely before the military shuts down all available routes leading to the American border for the next 6 months.

I don't think they are talking about the flu.
The infected zone covers the entire border between the U.S. and Mexico with only a few pockets of safe avenues to travel through. Andrew attempts to get Samantha through one of those avenues but time is running short as they make their way there. As they travel we see the remnants of past encounters with the monsters such as a charred helicopter along side the road and a wrecked tank stranded in the middle of a lake. We also see that none of this has changed the lives of the people living there as they still go about their daily lives as the sounds of helicopters and jets flying overhead are heard constantly. And of course Andrew inevitably runs into some problems that prevents him from getting Samantha across the border safely which only leaves them one alternate choice, to travel straight through the infected zone.

I feel it is important to note that this is not your typical alien/monster movie. We spend most of our time with Andrew and Samantha as they navigate through the infected zone instead of constant CG effects being thrown around every five minutes. Instead we actually get to spend time with them and get to know them. The film makers know that nothing we experience with them matters unless we feel invested in them as real people and by the time they start getting into trouble I found myself caring for them. As a matter of fact it takes them quite a while before they even reach the infected zone but everything leading up to that is handled so well that we actually want the film to take its time. The world that is created here is a fascinating one and every extra minute we get in it helps flesh it out.

I wonder what they could be looking at?
I must say that I really like the way the film depicts how this world has accepted these monsters. It is very reminiscent of how the aliens were treated in District 9 where nobody wants them there yet everyone has come to accept their presence regardless. You also see that no one truly understands what these monsters are, everyone just seems to react to them in a hostile way. During Andrew and Samantha's trek through the infected zone we learn more about these aliens and start to see that there is much more to them than it first appears. However, these monsters are still real threats and the handful of times our two friends encounter them they are always a force to be reckoned with.

Speaking of the monsters, I found them to be almost a non-factor for most of the film. That is not to say they aren't a large part of the story, quite the contrary as a matter of fact. They are this type of constant menace even when they are off screen for a good chunk of the run time. The way that the villagers speak of them it seems like they can show up at any time during the "season" which refers to the time of year they attempt to migrate out of the infected zone. Knowing that keeps a constant level of tension as they get ever closer to the American border and deeper into the infected zone.

The great wall of America.
I found the design and look of the monsters to be pretty interesting as well. You hardly ever get a real good look at them but they appear to be this strange mixture of a spider and an octopus with a large number of tentacles protruding out all around them. There is a night time seen later in the film where we get to see them a little better and they have this luminescence that dances throughout their bodies that can only be described as beautiful. It is easy to see how anyone that sees these creatures can become awe struck. Although they aren't the most original creature designs I have ever seen they are still a site to behold and most importantly the effects used to bring them to life is believable.

Which reminds me, this is definitely an independent film through and through but I wouldn't be surprised if you weren't able to tell that because between the creature effects and the numerous locations we see it feels like a studio film. It is also a really handsome looking movie, the production all around is topnotch. The trademarks of the independent film are at front and center though such as more character moments and less spectacle but I believe the film is much better because of that. The less spectacle there is, the more amazing it is when it happens. However, there is one aspect of the film that I didn't think was so much a problem per say but more of an annoyance to me on a personal level.

Make sure to keep protected when a monster is nearby.
That annoyance would be the message or social commentary of the film. There is this not so subtle message buried under all the science fiction on display about people that attempt to cross the border over into America. There is a lot of dialogue referring to how we don't understand the "aliens" and all we want to do is keep them out. At one point Andrew remarks that while they are in the middle of everything going down right then and they now understand what the situation is, when they get home they will go back to their comfortable lives and just forget everything they witnessed. And lastly that wall built along the American border is about as in your face as you can get with a political message about American Immigration polices.

Luckily the film itself stands strong without that message. First time director Gareth Edwards has crafted a tight and entertaining film in the end. The two lead actors do a fine job of making us believe the world they live in and the monsters themselves are impressive and leave a lasting impression despite the very little screen time they have. I also applaud the ending they went for here, it seemed like it was going to go one way and thankfully it didn't. I would have to say that if you are looking for a smart, well acted, written and directed character centric science fiction film then...


Watch it instantly now!
Monsters (Theatrical Rental)


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