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Excellent ‘Monsters’ Finds Humanity in Creature Feature

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CHICAGO – “Monsters” is a unique take on the giant creature genre that focuses more on the people below than the aliens above. Gareth Edwards’ highly-buzzed film could easily be read as a parable for life in an increasingly-dangerous, post-9/11 world and that ambitious subtext alone makes it one of the more intellectually captivating genre films of the year but it’s also shockingly-touching. With two strong central performances, a wonderfully genuine style, and some daring filmmaking decisions, “Monsters” will have a Godzilla-sized following develop over the next few years. See it in theaters or On Demand before all of your friends tell you to rent it.

Edwards’ drama – and it really is more of a drama than any other genre – conceives a world years after our planet was unexpectedly visited by aliens. And not your cute little E.T. aliens nor easily-subdued aliens like those in “District 9.” No, the creatures in “Monsters” live up to the film’s title. They resemble giant jellyfish or spiders that could dwarf most buildings and swat down fighter planes. The creatures arrived after we sent a probe into space and it returned with something definitely alive.

Photo credit: Magnolia

The terrifying creatures have taken up residence in Mexico and turned a large portion of it into an “Infected Zone”. The United States has put up a wall to try and keep them from migrating north (political subtext may be obvious in that sentence alone but it’s not over-played) and getting through the Infected Zone requires significant amounts of cash and firepower.

Into this daring set-up, Edwards drops two characters – a photographer named Andrew (Scott McNairy) and a woman named Samantha (Whitney Able) who happens to be the daughter of Andrew’s wealthy boss. Andrew is ordered to chaperone Samantha back from Mexico to the United States safely. Naturally, there are a few setbacks and a relationship develops along the way. Yes, this is arguably the first monster-based romantic drama, not unlike “Before Sunrise” meets “District 9.”

As Andrew and Samantha’s relationship develops through dialogue, movie goers waiting for “ID4” level explosions or creature fights could get frustrated. This is not that movie. This is a movie where much more is heard than seen. As the pair travel up a river through the infected zone, explosions in the distance and the unusual mournful cries of the aliens themselves streak through the air. It creates an atmosphere that’s incredibly rare in genre film and one that’s deep with subtext. The world of “Monsters” could be a war-torn area of our own planet today. And, of course, the title is one that gains added meaning when one wonders if we ever stopped to ask the aliens what they wanted or if they meant us harm. Who exactly are the monsters?

Photo credit: Magnolia

McNairy and Able, a real-life couple, have an excellent chemistry that is truly essential to a piece like this one. They have both created characters that feel genuine, adding to the realism of the piece. Yes, this is a “realistic” monster movie. On a very minimal budget, Edwards has done something most major filmmakers ignore in that he’s crafted a complete world. If we didn’t believe the universe in which “Monsters” takes place, the piece would have no resonance. The dedication of McNairy and Able along with the detail-driven work by Edwards are the main reason “Monsters” works.

I also adored how Edwards used his minimal budget to his advantage. It’s amazing how few filmmakers recognize that it is the unknown and not the known that’s truly scary. Almost every encounter with something potentially dangerous in “Monsters” is made suspenseful through sound; through what is unseen in the darkness or past the horizon.

“Monsters” ends with a spectacular sequence that I wouldn’t dare ruin but that almost makes one want to go back and watch the entire film again. It’s not a twist, per se, but a realization that what you’ve been watching has been slowly, steadily getting under your skin. And when you leave these characters and even the creatures of this world, it creates not only a surprising melancholy but strong memories of what you’ve just seen. “Monsters” lingers for days. Like only very good movies do.

‘Monsters’ stars Scott McNairy and Whitney Able. It was written and directed by Gareth Edwards. It opens at the Landmark Century on November 19th, 2010 and is currently available on demand. It is rated R.

HollywoodChicago.com content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

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