Monsters isn’t your average monster movie. The British writer/director, Gareth Edwards, is a do-it-yourself auteur. After finishing film school, he taught himself visual effects and used that expertise as an entree into the industry. When he sat down to write his own film, he knew that he could spend less than a million dollars to make something that looked like it cost ten times that much by shooting it himself and creating his own CGI. All he needed was good actors, a flexible crew and exotic locations like Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Belize to provide the raw material. Stephen King called the results “simple, but sturdy and resonant” and ranked Monsters eighth on his top ten list of 2010.
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Film Length: 94 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: AVC
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 7.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 50GB
Package: Keepcase with textured slipcover
Theatrical Release Date: Sept. 24, 2010 (on demand); Oct. 29, 2010 (limited theatrical)
Blu-ray Release Date: Feb. 1, 2011
At an unspecified date in the near future, a space probe returning to earth with samples believed to contain alien life forms has broken up over Mexico. Now it’s six years later. Huge, menacing creatures are sighted with alarming frequency in the “infected” zone, which continues to expand south toward Central America and north toward the U.S., despite an all-out effort by the military to contain the infection. Air raids with poison gas are a daily occurrence over the infected zone. At the U.S. border, a huge wall has been constructed to prevent the creatures from entering American territory. (Some critics saw a political message in this part of the story, but the filmmakers insist otherwise. Like a number of elements in Monsters, the wall is something of a MacGuffin.)
Andy (Scoot McNairy) is a photojournalist who works for an American media empire. He’s spent months traveling around the infected zone trying get pictures of a live monster, but so far he’s only managed to capture carcasses after military action. Suddenly he gets a new assignment that he doesn’t want. Samantha, or “Sam” (Whitney Able), the daughter of the company’s CEO, has been vacationing in Mexico south of the infected zone, but her hotel has just suffered a monster attack. Sam escaped without serious injury, but her father wants her home now, and he instructs Andy to make sure that happens. Andy protests that babysitting isn’t his job, but he’s enticed with promises of promotion.
The basic narrative of Monsters follows Andy’s efforts to get Sam across (or around) the infected zone. It’s not an easy task. The military is constantly adapting its tactics to a fluid situation, and routes that are available one day might be suddenly closed the next. A thriving black market of travel assistance has sprung up around the infected zone, charging exorbitant (and escalating) amounts for ferry rides and other forms of passage. And Andy is neither an organized nor a reliable chaperone – a point made more problematic by the fact that Sam isn’t an entirely willing passenger. Her “vacation” was also a form of escape, and she’s not enthusiastic about returning.
This last point gets at the deeper narrative of Monsters, which places it firmly in the British strain of science fiction (represented by such writers as J.G. Ballard) in which there are no greater mysteries than those of the human mind. Both Sam and Andy are struggling with personal issues – in Andy’s case, a son he feels guilty for leaving; in Sam’s, an impending marriage about which she’s clearly uncertain. As their circumstances grow more difficult and dangerous, each of them is forced to confront issues they’ve been avoiding. All the while they’re learning things about the aliens that haven’t been shown on the news, they’re learning even more about themselves. Every path they take to get Sam home seems to lead to another detour, but even as the detours bring them closer to their destination, the strangeness of the experiences – and the close encounters along the way – make each of them question the lives they’ve led. By the end, even if they make it through, it’s not clear whether either Sam or Andy can go back to being who they were.
If Monsters had been a studio project, what Sam and Andy learn would be boiled down into neat sound bites and tidy speeches, and everything would flow like movie dialogue. But Monsters doesn’t play that way, because Edwards’ approach was a guerilla filmmaker’s version of the method developed by the great British director Mike Leigh. Edwards outlined a story, characters and situations, then left his actors free to improvise all of their dialogue. The result, even when carefully edited, seems spontaneous and unrehearsed, and it has a distinctive rhythm unlike a typical science fiction film. You have to listen to the dialogue and read between the lines, because the characters don’t stop to give you bullet points outlining their thoughts.
Edwards shot the film himself with Sony digital cameras, using real locations and whoever happened to be there as extras and supporting “actors”. (Needless to say, he didn’t bother with permits.) Because he could visualize in his head what digital effects he would add later, he could dispense with green screens and tracking markers. Often he would just pan overhead, where he planned to insert something like jets flying, or sideways to an empty space that he would later fill with ruins or wreckage – much to the consternation of his two lead actors, who couldn’t understand why their director was suddenly pointing the camera away from them.
Monsters recalls many other films, but it’s good enough to stand the comparison. Cloverfield came out while Edwards was working on his film, and many people told him his idea had already been used. But as Edwards points out, Cloverfield records the beginning of an alien encounter, while Monsters picks up the thread some years later. District 9 is an obvious comparison, and there’s a river journey in Monsters that can’t help but suggest Apocalypse Now. By the end of the film, though, I was thinking of Steven Spielberg (and I don’t mean War of the Worlds).
Hint: After finishing the film, replay the opening. It may strike you very differently on a second viewing.
Shot, edited and finished entirely in the digital realm, Monsters comes to Blu-ray with no interim analog conversion. Compression issues aside, what Edwards created should be what we get. The 2:35:1 image is generally very detailed, colorful and sharply defined, although detail does tend to suffer in night scenes and dark interiors, probably due to a lack of supplemental lighting. Video noise is minimal, though occasionally enough to be noticeable. The color pallette tends to be muted, although there is the occasional strong, saturated color for a deliberate effect.
Monsters’ audio track can be immersive and powerful, especially in jungle scenes or scenes in moving vehicles, such as trains or military transports. It can also be very quiet in simple dialogue scenes in such places as hotel rooms. It’s a well-mixed, intelligently crafted track that knows when to use the surrounds but doesn’t rely on them. The subtly atmospheric score is by Jon Hopkins, and the track is presented in 7.1 DTS lossless.
The special features are extensive and detailed, but at a certain point one wishes for the kind of editorial judgment that took the initial cut of Monsters from 4:15 to its current running time of 1:34. Less is sometimes more, and when special features add up to a running time several times greater than the film itself, the balance is off. In general, the features where participants other than Edwards do much of the talking are the most valuable, because they provide an essential balance. I have marked them with an asterisk.
*Commentary with Writer/Director Gareth Edwards and Actors Scott McNairy and Whitney Able. The close relationship forged among the three collaborators is obvious as they recall people and places and, in the case of Able and McNairy, marvel at how the scenes were transformed in post-production. One notable item that emerges is that most of the scenes in the film’s first act were reshot at the end, after the team had finished the rest of the film, because they felt they could convey critical exposition more efficiently, now that they’d enacted the entire story together. Another interesting fact: McNairy and Able, who were a couple when filming began, married shortly after.
Deleted and Extended Scenes (SD; 2.35:1; enhanced for 16:9) (20:07). Four scenes are included, and they provide interesting examples of the alternative takes that Edwards’ improvisational shooting style generated for him and his editor. For example, one shows a slightly different version of the initial encounter between Sam and Andy and a local family, while another shows a variant of their arrival in a hotel room.
Behind the Scenes of Monsters (HD) (1:09:15). An exhaustive (and exhausting) production diary following Edwards from the first day of shooting through the end of principal photography. Its chief value is that it gives one a sense of how arduous the shoot was.
*Monsters: The Edit (HD) (21:31). In this intense but amicable dialogue, Edwards and editor Colin Goudie discuss how they carved the film out of the hundreds of hours of footage that Edwards brought back from his various locations. Because no shooting script existed, Goudie had to “find” the story in the footage, based on Edwards’ notes. And because the effects wouldn’t be added until after the edit was “locked”, Goudie had to use his imagination as much as the actors had when they were filming. It’s not how feature films are usually done, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t be done this way more often, and Goudie’s comments are thought-provoking.
Visual Effects (HD) (34:56). Edwards discusses the effects work, all of which he did himself using “off the shelf” software. Because Edwards also operated the camera at all times, he did not need green screens, background plates or “tracking points” to create references for an outside effects house. As he was shooting, he was also deciding where visual effects would be inserted. The only elements that required major design work were the creatures themselves, and background on their development is included.
Interview with Gareth Edwards (HD) (44:16). Edwards speaks at length about his background, the genesis of the project, his approach to the story and the dangers of the shoot.
*Interview with Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (HD) (28:04). The two actors describe how they were cast and the filming process. As much as they enjoyed the freedom to create their characters, they also discuss the stress and uncertainty of not having “pages” to prepare for the next day’s work and of not being able to tell, by reference to a script, whether they were getting it right. The director’s assurance that they were giving him what he needed became essential.
*New YorkComic Con Discussion with Gareth Edwards (HD) (5:02). Although the questions appear to have been edited out, this short presentation by Edwards provides the best introduction to Edwards’ background and the film’s origins. A very early working concept, Edwards says, was “Blair Witch meets War of the Worlds”.
HDNet: A Look at Monsters (HD) (4:40). This is the usual HDNet promo piece. It uses brief selections from the longer interviews listed above.
Trailers. The film’s trailer is not included but can be found on various Magnolia discs. At startup, the disc plays trailers for Ong Bak 3, All Good Things, Night Catches Us, Vanishing on 7th Street, Rubber and HDNet and HDNet Movies; these can be skipped with the top menu or chapter forward buttons and are also available from the special features menu.
BD-Live. The BD-Live entry for this particular Magnolia disc returns the familiar message “Check Back Later for Updates”.
Digital Copy. An insert contains instructions and a code for downloading a digital copy compatible with iTunes. It has an expiration date of February 1, 2013.
Original talents are rare. Edwards appears to be one of them, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens if someone gives him real money. Much of what makes Monsters distinctive resulted from Edwards’ ability to keep tight control over all aspects of production, but that kind of control can disappear very quickly when a significant investment is riding on the outcome. That’s why some of the best movies are made on the cheap.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
BostonAccoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub