Thursday, November 18, 2010

Gareth Edwards' Monsters: Loving the alien

Monsters is a movie of rare and surprising beauty, which is not what you'd expect to say about a movie about alien monsters called Monsters. It's not a story about a disaster so much as it's about surviving and keeping a semblance of a normal life after a disaster. Unlike Hollywood product, it doesn't bombard your senses with nonstop chaotic CG action and noise, partly because Gareth Edwards didn't have the money for that (though what he manages to put onscreen for as little money as he had was more believable to me than all of Avatar's ooo-shiny megapixels), and partly because the story was allowed to evolve naturally, without a conventional script, with talented actors building characters from story notes. This is a process that would never work under a studio. It's guerilla independent filmmaking at its purest.

It's also an example of how a story can end up working on multiple different levels even if its creator didn't mean for it to. Edwards has said in interviews that he initially just wanted to make a monster movie. Once teamed up with his actors, it became a touching story about those characters, and how they bond through their ordeal. Once he chose his location — Mexico — it added an extra layer, as an allegory about xenophobia, and America's near-hysterical fear of illegal aliens invading our borders. In one incredible shot (and Edwards himself did all the film's 200 or so FX shots, most of which are more convincing, as I said, than the trash studios inflict on us), we see a colossal concrete wall, perhaps 500 feet high, stretching across the US/Mexico border, to keep out the aliens. Not long after, we see just how well that worked.

I doubt that Edwards, a British filmmaker and veteran FX man, consciously absorbed the anti-immigration madness of the Tea Party in the interest of setting out to make a political allegory. In fact he's indicated as much. Somewhere along the way, the zeitgeist just worked its way into his movie. Stories that have real substance are rarely the ones that set out in the first place to rub your nose in a message. George Romero didn't set out with Night of the Living Dead to compose an allegory of the social unrest of the 60's, and the way Americans were suddenly viewing one another as enemies, each group out to get the other. But the subtext is there, if you want it.

In addition to all the giant-rampaging-monster movies of yore, Monsters' key influence seems to be Ridley Scott's Alien. It's easy to forget, considering that there are probably very few movie geeks today under the age of 50 who don't know exactly what the Alien looks like in every detail, that in the original classic, Scott did something remarkable: he hired the foremost macabre artist in the world to create a being of unsurpassed horror and grotesqueness, encouraged him to build that creature in loving detail with no creative restrictions — and then in the finished film, we almost never saw it.

Instead, its presence was palpably felt all through the movie from the moment it was let aboard the ship. Once the Alien was in the picture, nothing the characters would or could do for the rest of their lives (most of which were measured in hours) wasn't a direct response to its presence.

But there's a notable difference between Monsters' monsters and Giger's Alien, the creature from Cloverfield, and most of moviedom's other colossal beasts. They're not really monsters at all, simply alien creatures who've ended up someplace they don't belong, are trying to make do, and would probably be perfectly happy if the US military wasn't determined to keep shooting them with missiles and whatever else our taxes have paid for. One of the Mexican guides leading our protagonists through the Infected Zone that makes up the northern half of that country to the US border even says as much. Leave the creatures alone, they'll leave you alone. And when you pay close attention to the movie, you notice that they never, in fact, attack unless threatened.

The actual appearance of the monsters is handled sparingly, making it clear that — like Scott in Alien and classic producer Val Lewton (Cat People) — what you don't see is far scarier than what you do. We first see the monsters in a brief opening credit sequence, where they're flickery video images on televisions in the background. Off and on we see them again, just this way. A distant threat, an image on a screen on a screen.

Meanwhile, all around we see what their presence has created: a society where helicopters and fighter jets roar through the skies at all hours, where children are trained to use gas masks (to protect them not from anything the monsters do, but the weapons used against them), where the skeletons of demolished buildings loom up from the jungle. Those FX shots are often beautifully composed against grey skies or blazing sunsets, bleak and mournful. I was reminded of Tarkovsky's Stalker, the hypnotic movie based on the Russian science fiction novel Roadside Picnic. The premise of the novel, inspired by the Tunguska event, is that there is a "Zone" considered dangerous to people where aliens once visited, and, like lazy travelers anywhere, left a bunch of trash behind. In the movie, one man leads two others on an illegal journey into the Zone, where rumor has it there exists a room where your deepest wish will be granted. (The tricky part is that your deepest wish may not really be what you think it is.) In Monsters, Edwards' Zone, with its overgrown jungles, ruined buildings, and men willing to live dangerously because what else would they do, brought to mind the densely forested and deserted landscapes of Stalker.

We're fully halfway through the movie before we experience our first full-on monster encounter. Because we've barely seen the actual creatures at all up to this point, the scene is immeasurably more suspenseful. When the monsters need to be sinister, they are. But when Edwards wants us to see their beautiful side, we get that too. The final scene is handled with extraordinary care, where Edwards carefully balances both extreme tension and a kind of lyrical sense of wonder at the same time. This is when we and the characters fully appreciate that these beings are not what we thought them to be. And if we hadn't been so stupid as to bring them back here in the first place, we wouldn't be in this mess.

Mostly, Monsters is the story of its central couple, who find themselves having to brave hostile wilderness on their own to get back home. We know they're going to fall in love, but it's okay, because as with everything else, Edwards' defies Hollywood convention. The usual formula for studio romance plots is that the couple hates each other's guts for 85 minutes until they realize in the final five minutes they can't live without each other. The couple here don't meet-cute in the usual way (to put it mildly), and during their journey, they interact pretty much as you'd imagine real people would. Again, much of the authentic quality of the performances comes from Edwards allowing the actors to improvise most of their scenes into shape. Improvisation may sound to the average person like the lazy-ass way to get out of doing proper preparatory work, but I've had the privilege of working with actors who had strong improv skills, and good improvisation can really make a scene take on a whole new life.

Sam is the daughter of some pompous American media magnate. Kaulder is a photographer working for one of his magazines. Both are in Mexico, south of the Infected Zone, and he finds himself tasked with escorting her out of the country. At first he thinks this will just be to the coast, to a ferry that will sail back to the US through the Gulf. By a stupid mistake, they end up having to travel overland. Edwards uses non-professional actors in almost every supporting role, and this adds to the realism of each scene. The unctuous official who never drops his friendly smile as he rips them off to the tune of $10,000 for passage to the border is unforgettable.

Whitney Able doesn't play Sam as a snooty rich bitch, and Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) mostly sees her as a problem he's been stuck with when he'd rather be out grabbing the shots that pay the big bucks. Because they're stuck with each other, they decide to get along. They become friends in the way people bond from a shared ordeal.

Sam wonders if Kaulder's conscience bothers him. He makes money at his job only when bad things happen. "Like a doctor?" he replies. He points out that her father's company pays him nothing for a photo of a happy, smiling child, but will pay $50,000 for one killed by a monster. Who's in the wrong there? Midway through the film we actually see a dead child. It's a scene Hollywood would have milked for all the nauseating sentiment it could muster. First we see Caulder pulling lenses out of his camera bag, and we wonder if Sam's concerns about him are warranted. But he does nothing, and covers the body up instead.

They're always thinking ahead, to getting home. "What will you do," they keep asking each other. She has a fiancee she doesn't seem especially in love with (his engagement ring is what buys the two of them passage to the border). He has a kid from a long-ago fling whom he gets to see, but doesn't get to tell "I'm your dad." The closer they get to reaching the border, the more they talk about these old lives, the farther they actually seem. Sometimes you go through an experience so profound you cannot go back to who you were.

An obvious point of comparison here would be Cloverfield, a movie that began promisingly as a satirical exercise in imagining what a Godzilla-style attack during the age of endless digital self-documentation would look like. Where Cloverfield lost me was in hurling me into this Orpheus-like journey in which the main guy desperately wants to save his girlfriend, without first doing the work necessary to make me like the guy, like the girl, or care if they reunited and rekindled their love. Monsters effortlessly made me like both its protagonists, because it never asks me for emotional responses that its story hasn't earned (mainly by never offering a scene for cheap emotional button-mashing to begin with). I did want them to get to safety, though I didn't necessarily want them to get home. I got the idea there was no more happiness for them there.

It's not a perfect movie (the ending is a little abrupt) by any means. But for a filmmaker spitting on his hands and following his vision without regard to little nuisances like a severe lack of millions of dollars, to create something so confident in its intent, and so undeniably superior in its actual results, than most bloated Hollywood gigadollar productions, I can't but love the hell out of it. It manages to be both modest and ambitious at once. Despite having the FX skills to match any studio production in eye candy, Edwards never loses sight of keeping the movie grounded in character. Most movies I see, the more I think about them, the bigger the irritating little flaws get. The more I think of Monsters, the more I want it in my permanent library, to watch again and again.

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