Monsters (2010, dir. Gareth Edwards)
The film begins with title cards that explain that a NASA probe was launched years ago and brought back microorganisms that have mutated into gigantic monsters that rule a swath of land between the United States and Mexico. This area has been walled off and named “The Infected Zone, ” and no one is allowed to pass without permission from the joint-government operation. Andrew Kaulder (Halt and Catch Fire’s Scoot McNairy) is a photojournalist guilted into escorting his boss’s daughter, Samantha back into the States. The catch is that in two days all travel between countries is going to be blocked off for a six-month long major operation.
With Star Wars: Rogue One being released in theaters this weekend I thought it was the right time to finally sit down and watch director Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. I’d only seen his Godzilla film, which I wasn’t very impressed by. When Edwards was announced as the director of the first Star Wars spinoff, I was a bit confused. These were the same feelings I had when Colin Trevorrow was announced to director Jurassic World, Marc Webb was set to helm the Spider-Man reboot, and Josh Trank was put in charge of Fantastic Four. There appears to be a trend of picking the “hot young director” to take over a major film property. This sort of mentality defies logic because from the outside this feels like a very risky proposition. The only way this really makes sense to me is from the perspective of a controlling studio who wants a director that has a creative vision but hasn’t had time to build that sense of earned professionalism to think they can make the big decisions. “Hot, young directors” let studios and their notes on dailies wield greater power than with a genuinely creative director who has earned it.
Monsters is a beautiful looking film. The cinematography is masterful, and Edwards does an excellent job of evoking scale. Landscapes fill the screen and when the monsters do appear they are represented as truly towering and powerful. It also becomes very clear that Edwards is not interested in telling a story of man vs. monster. The film is purely focused on the two characters traveling across a dangerous land and the relationship that grows between them. The appearance of the monsters is used to underline some larger concept or idea that is going on between them or to emphasize that they are in peril to get home. There are a lot of fascinating ideas at work in Monsters.
Monsters wants to be an insightful character piece, but I personally found the characters to be shallow and ultimately uninteresting. The film’s tone bounces between a straightforward narrative with hints of Cinéma vérité but never delves deep enough. The stories behind both characters are painted in fairly broad strokes (He has a son and has never been involved in his life, She is running from an engagement she really doesn’t want to be in). Dialogue is a little too on the nose and, while these are good actors, I just don’t think they are skilled enough to bring a full performance into every gesture or look that would tell these characters’ stories at a greater depth. Edwards has a background in digital special effects which explains why the film looks so good, but may also inform as to why the characters ultimately feel flat and undeveloped.