Monday 13 December 2010

Cthulhu Dawn?

Monsters 2010 UK
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Screening at UK cinemas

Warning! Monstrous spoilers will ensue.

Monsters is an unbelievably low budget movie of something like $10,000 and as such, should be applauded by all fans of cinema in general for making something that has elements which feel like they belong in a bigger budget effects movie. It has a certain beauty and proclivity towards heightened suspense, however, that in some places makes it feel a little like the writing and cinematography is trying hard to hold the knowledge of that budget from its audience.

These are the facts.

A meteor or something landed on Earth and set up an “infected” zone which is placed in military quarantine from the rest of the world. There is an extraterrestrial presence (and these things are very Lovecraftian Cthulhu mythos in appearance) being contained as much as possible in that zone... and so right away you can see the set up is very similar to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s brilliant sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic (and the subsequent movie adaptation, Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker).

The similarity pretty much ends their though as a reporter has to get his bosses daughter, who has received an injured arm in an unspecified manner by a monster attack during the opening of the film, across the borders out of Mexico (where the "infected zone" is) and back to the US before the exits are closed in the next day or so. Unfortunately, after bonding to a certain extent and with all their money gone on unusable tickets due to the daughters passport being stolen, they are forced to pawn her engagement ring to get passage on boat and then foot across the “alien monster infested zone” to get back to the US.

And that’s the basic set up... and it’s a really nicely shot and competently acted movie but... for me it also has its problems... or rather one major problem... which is the ending. But I’ll get to that soon.

The movie is pretty much a road movie through a jungle and as such, it reminded me of no less than one of Werner Herzog’s old classic “travelogue” movies like Agguire, Wrath of God. Especially on the first leg of the trip by boat. At one point on that trip we even see a boat that’s been tossed up into a tree (presumably by a creature) which seemed to me to be an almost deliberate echo of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. Is Edwards referencing Herzog here? My guess is yes.

There are a couple of little set pieces involving an aircraft being tossed about from below a river by a monster and another where our two main protagonists are being escorted by a military like unit of armed men across the forbidden zone and they all get “monstered up” and only our two heroes survive. And everything leads to the point when they get to the wall that marks the end of the “infected” zone and re-enter America. You’ll get there way ahead of them in realising that, by the time they get to the suburban town on the other side of the wall it’s totally deserted (apart from a crazy shopping trolley lady who delivers perhaps the only genuine “jump” of the movie).

There are a few ways this film could have ended. All the way through the movie, the bosses daughter who you know survived an alien attack at the start has been checking out her arm. This coupled with the talk of the alien fungus spreading and growing and the talk of the infected zone made me assume that the girl would at some point pop free from her skin and become a raving alien monster... infected by an alien bite received during the credits sequence... sadly this doesn’t happen.

What is really needed though, in a film which has been truly competent at making you fairly edgy and cautious of these beasts... is some kind of extended fight/chase sequence lasting 10-15 minutes where the movie makes good on it’s threat, so to speak. You can maybe blame my Western outlook on the need for a horror/action punchline at the end of the film but, frankly, you’d be barking up the wrong tree with me on that one ‘cause I love movies which lead you to an understated place you’re not expecting. However, with the way monsters has been set up with all the graffiti on the walls and the news reports to remind the audience of the threat of their existence to humanity... I think they really needed to deliver some big set piece at the end. What we get instead is a vaguely suspenseful sequence with a tentacle groping blindly around our heroine in a shop (a scene which has been done to death in dozens of movies and which was taken to the extended, height of boredom in Spielberg’s tepid take on The War of the Worlds) followed by a sequence where we get to see two alien Cthulhu look-alikes having sex. Yeah, I get that we’re supposed to go away thinking...oh that’s really great... I really liked the ending of Encounter at Farpoint the first time around so I’m happy to see a rerun of it at the cinema... but not me I’m afraid. They really needed a run, jump and scare sequence to live up to audience expectations on this one I think... and it really doesn’t go there.

That aside though... it really is a beautifully shot film... so if you have a hankering for seeing something like one of those old Herzog pseudo-travelogue movies or maybe something a little similar to Apocalypse Now... but with no action set pieces and something perhaps a little less alien than Marlon Brando... check out the Monsters. You may just find yourself having a really good time!


  1. I always yearn for chase/fight/payoff at the end, although can also appreciate the subtle terminus. Has that been ingrained by Hollywoodish movies from birth? Is it a primal need for "The End"?

    I checked out a couple of the trailers for this flick (don't recall it even close to cinemas near me) and it is beautifully shot. Desolate wastes and small-town characters and you're right--Herzogish.

  2. Hi Bucko. Yeah... I thought it might be that... but that just doesn't gell with a lot of the kind of movies I've watched in my life. I think the set up and build up on this one leads towards a pay off that isn't really that appropriate to all that's gone before it. Definitely needed a little blood and thunder in there.

  3. Ack--sometimes one's intentions are not borne out in what is shown on the page or screen. Perhaps the director wanted to be very modern and subtle but should have played the bigass monster movie to the hilt instead. I do love your reviews. Informative and casual. If it weren't so early here, I'd sit at a pub and read it.