Monday, November 8, 2010

Here there be MONSTERS!


- Monsters was an indie sci-fi thriller that caught my attention earlier this year, thanks to some decent buzz that emanated from various festivals where the low budget film had been playing. Fan sites were enthusiastically posting positive reviews, and the comparisons to movies like District 9 were frequent, and definitely intriguing. So, since I've been holed up at home these last several days, I thought I'd take advantage of the fact that MONSTERS was available as a digital download in addition to its limited-release theatrical run. I fired up my Apple TV and sat down to watch the film, very curious to see if it lived up to the hype.

The fact is, MONSTERS was nowhere close to what I expected, with very little to really set it apart from the pack. The movie is similar to District 9 only in that it mixes a high-concept sci-fi / horror premise with a more grounded, "you-are-there" storytelling approach. But where District 9 was smart, action-packed, and innovative, Monsters feels slow, pretentious, and derivative. It was just a slog to get through at times, and the plot, characters, and premise never really succeed at capturing your full attention. Definitely disappointing.

The premise of Monsters is simple - earth has been invaded by hulking, Lovecraftian aliens - you know, of the giant, tentacled, Cloverfield-esque variety. Somehow though (and this is never really explained), the goverments of the world have managed to quarantine the alien monsters into a number of "infected" zones, inside of which there's all sorts of (presumably awesome) monster vs. military carnage goin' on. A lot of the ins and outs of this post-apocalyptic world are never really fleshed out. In fact, the movie never seems to interested in its own mythology. Instead, it focuses in on our two main characters - Andrew and Samantha - who get stranded outside one of the infected zones in Mexico and are desperately trying to make it back to the US, through the zone.

Immediately, Andrew and Samantha come off as ultra-annoying. Samantha is the daughter of some big media tycoon, and Andrew is a photographer who works for one of her father's publications. For some reason, Andrew's been dispatched to escort Sam back to the safety of the US. Originally, that was supposed to encompass a simple train ride, but that plan, of course, goes to hell. However, the dynamic between the two leads is just too grating. For whatever reason, MONSTERS seems intent on being the second coming of Before Sunrise, spending scene upon scene with Andrew and Samantha ruminating on their childhoods, on love, loss, family, etc. They have an endless, excruciating flirtation going on (Sam has a boyfriend, but we get a line or two about how he's unavailable to her, so we can root for she and Andrew to hook up). What's worse, both of the leads are wooden and just plain unlikable. Both characters come off as self-possessed douchebags, so you basically just end up hoping that the $%&# hits the fan and the monsters come out to cause some monster mayhem.

And yet, the monsters barely play a role in the movie. Sure, they appear a few times, and they look decent despite the low-budget CGI f/x. But they are basically beside the point of the movie. The film is never driven forward by the idea of "in a world overrun by monsters, how do people react?" Nope, instead it's neverending twentysomething angst in Mexico, and, oh yeah, some tentacle creatures thrown in for good measure.

I was in a very open-minded mood when I fired up Monsters. I was feeling sick and just looking for any sort of post-Halloween entertainment. And sure, I admire the movie for creating some sense of scope and epicness despite its obvious constraints. The creatures, when we do see them, are pretty cool. And yet, I found myself just waiting for Monsters to be over and done with - at some point I was so detached from the characters - and so uninvolved in the plot - that I was ready to simply tune out. District 9 this was not.

My Grade: C-

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