Monsters (UK 2010)

Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Sam (Whitney Able) as the couple in Monsters.

Monsters is an important film for several reasons. The most obvious observation is that it proves that you can make a convincing genre film with impressive CGI for under $500,000 (or even much less according to some reports). There has never been better evidence of the possibilities for filmmakers who understand how to get the best from relatively inexpensive equipment and how to conceive a viable production idea with only two professional actors and a basic script.

Following other British films by first-time directors, such as Skeletons and Moon, Monsters also demonstrates that despite the thousands of words on the fragile state of British filmmaking, there are still new talents to watch. Writer-director Gareth Edwards previously worked in TV, mostly documentary and dramadoc/docudrama as writer/director/cinematographer and visual effects creator. He utilises all these skills in Monsters and has been deservedly rewarded with several prizes.

But most of all, Monsters looks like being the perfect film for teaching about the way in which film culture is developing and that’s what I want to explore. I should confess that I’d heard rather a lot about the film before I could get to a screening. Therefore I had a good idea of what to expect – which took away some of the possible pleasures of the narrative the first time round. I was also aware of the male lead, ‘Scoot’ McNairy who starred in the under-rated indy rom-com, In Search of a Midnight Kiss. I mention this since many reviewers refer to the two leads as ‘unknowns’ – but I felt invited in because of my familiarity with McNairy (I’ve used the earlier film successfully with students). I was also aware that many mainstream audiences for the film had felt ‘taken in’ by the title which led them to expect something that wasn’t really forthcoming – a ‘monster movie’. When I queued up at the multiplex, I realised that the group of young teenage boys behind me were discussing going to see the film and, for a moment, I thought of warning them that they might not enjoy it. I’m glad I didn’t. I’d rather risk a negative reaction than keep audiences from seeing something different.

You only have to look at IMDB and various other film websites/blogs/forums to see how this film has divided audiences. Much of the conflict focuses on expectations of what the film will offer – it was released ‘wide’, not to as many multiplexes as a blockbuster, but to far more than most specialised or ‘art’ films in the UK (164 screens compared to the 250 plus of most mainstream films). In North America, the release has been much narrower (only 25 screens, but possibly also on VOD?). I suspect that in the US, only science fiction/action fans knew about the film in the mainstream audience (the film received significant critical support which might influence the more cinephile audience). In the UK the mainstream audience was much more exposed to the trailer. So, what were they expecting?

Here is the official US trailer for Monsters. If you’ve not seen the film, please be aware that the trailer briefly shows some of the best scenes which might spoil your enjoyment of the unfolding narrative:

and here is the UK trailer:

I think the UK trailer is better – i.e. a more accurate representation of the film, though still potentially misleading. It’s inevitable that the trail will focus on the genre elements of science fiction rather than the romance/relationship drama that is at least as important. Several critics have also referred to the road movie as part of the generic mix and there is certainly a case to be argued but I think that the film is more concerned (intentionally or not) with a distinct sub-genre or extended cycle of films about migration from Central America to the United States. This involves ‘border-crossing’ and refers to a host of movies, both American and Mexican – the most recent being Sin Nombre. In the case of Monsters, the decision to make the lead male character a journalist ties the film into an0ther cycle of films about ‘journalists in warzones and their ethical stance’. One such reference might be to Nick Nolte as a photographer in Nicaragua in Under Fire (1983). Kaulder (the Scoot McNairy character in Monsters) is in Central America to take photographs about the war against the aliens. We presume he is a freelance who is nonetheless dependent on his major clients for work and he is effectively ordered by his client, a media mogul, to escort the rich man’s injured daughter back to America. He tells the young woman, Sam (Whitney Able), that photographs of happy children are worth nothing but he could get $50,000 for an image of a child killed by an alien. This has an interesting narrative pay-off later in the film. There isn’t in fact a great deal of direct critique of media corporations or US policy – which of course makes the few examples more powerful. I felt that this underplaying of metaphor was quietly effective, but it seems to have offended several internet posters. I wonder how many American viewers realised that this was a British film? The majority of films that I can think of which deal with the migration North from Central America tend to be sympathetic to the migrants and critical of the American presence at the border. Possibly the most enjoyable moment in The Day After Tomorrow is when the Americans escape to safety as refugees in Mexico.

I’m hoping to use Monsters with students and I look forward to analysing their responses.

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