Friday, 3 December 2010

Monsters

After a NASA space probe crash lands in Mexico, alien life-forms begin to spread across half of Mexico, leading to the ‘infected zone’ being cordoned off and put in quarantine. Six years later, Andrew, a young photographer, is tasked by his wealthy boss to bring home his daughter, Sam, from Mexico to the United States. However, they only have 48 hours to get back to the USA before all routes home are blocked due to the aliens migration season. Events conspire against the pair, and before long, they’re left with only one route home: A treacherous journey through the ‘infected zone’...

Gareth Edwards must surely be a masochist. Not only did this visual artist conceive and write this low-budget film, he also directed it, took charge of the cinematography and, naturally, created all the visual effects. Considering this film has taken him way outside his comfort zone, he’s ended up creating a film with all the skill of an experienced filmmaker. His writing is subtle and underplayed, his direction is intelligent and refined, his cinematography is intriguing and tonally appropriate and the visual effects are ambitious and stunning. Well done, sir.

It’s a simple story: Two people are forced together to make a journey home through hell or high water. This time, though, the ‘hell’ is the aliens who now inhabit Central America and the ‘high water’ is the massive wall the United States Border Control has constructed between the US and the ‘infected zone’. In the midst of this story, some classic cinema tropes are on display; the couple who are forced together ultimately become friends and then lovers, their simple route home is blocked so they’re forced to take a more dangerous way home. It all sounds like such a simple sci-fi drama film, but it all comes together with great aplomb, helped by two great performances by the lead actors, some stunning visuals, and a fair few realistic-looking visual effects.

What really helps the film along are the performances of, and the chemistry between, the two lead actors; Whitney Able playing Sam and the brilliantly named Scoot McNairy playing Andrew. The two are, in real life, a couple, and so all the chemistry they have on-screen is genuine, which is a nice bit of casting by Edwards. Other than their chemistry, they both play their individual roles brilliantly. It’s not overacted; it’s all nice and naturalistic, in-fitting with the documentary feel of the film with its shaky handheld camerawork. Also, considering there are no other major characters (no-one else in the film appears on screen for more than 10 minutes), it’s important to have that strong performance in order to carry the film through to its conclusion.

The idea of the film itself is an interesting take on the monster/invasion genre. To put it simply, it’s what would have happened if they had kept the cameras rolling after the end of Cloverfield, after all the initial chaos and destruction, after what happens in your typical invasion film. It’s six years on, and the aliens are just a part of the way things are now. The might of the army couldn’t defeat them, so they’ve left the aliens to have their own zone in which to inhabit, albeit fenced off and under constant supervision. Think District 9, but in Mexico and with giant arachnosquids (my term, not the official term). The film also uses the idea of the invading monsters to unsubtly comment on the controversy surrounding the US-Mexico border. The aliens have landed on the US’s front door, they’ve resisted letting them cross the border by building a massive wall but they’re not actually looking to wreak havoc, they just want to settle down in peace and are only attacking when provoked by the belligerent US military. We’re definitely thinking District 9 here.

Of course, how the aliens look and act, as well as what kind of influence they have on the film is down in no small part to Gareth Edwards’ technical genius. With a shoestring budget, he’s used his experience in visual effects to create some genuine-looking monsters. He’s also sparing with how often they’re seen; mostly it’s just a close-up of a few tentacles or a far-away look at them. When you do get a close look at these monsters, they’re visually stunning and wonderfully rendered; they’re curiously beautiful creatures with the potential to be a threat. There’s a scene at the very end of this movie featuring the aliens which feels so human. Considering that’s a scene created from a shot of a blank night sky with digital animations placed over the top, it’s a phenomenal feat Edwards has pulled off here. Let’s not forget though he’s also created almost all of the scenes of destruction (destroyed buildings, destroyed cars) and landscape features (the US border wall) digitally, along with all the fine touches like road signs and news reports. It must have been a painstaking effort; going through scene by scene, adding so much into the film digitally. Ultimately, it’s paid off.

Overall, I cannot recommend this film highly enough. The acting’s great, the story may be predictable but it’s simple and you know where you stand with it, the scenery is breathtaking and the monsters look stunningly real. You can tell this was a real labour of love, what with the amount of post-production work that was clearly required on it and with the small budget it’s been made with. And yet all this has come from a first-time writer/director? It’s fantastic, and gives hope to all the wannabe filmmakers out there. With a good idea, a little bit of money, a lot of help, some off-the-shelf editing software, a lot of time and a lot of patience, maybe you could create something as outstanding as this. Though probably not.

Rating: ****1/2