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Seeing "Monsters" at TIFF

Yesterday I had the chance to watch “Monsters” a low-budget science-fiction movie at the Toronto International Film Festival. It was the first time I saw a movie in this context and overall it was a memorable experience. Plus, the movie was memorable.

I arrived at the Scotiabank theatre for the 8:30pm showing about an hour and a half ahead of schedule. It wasn’t a bad idea since there were already a few people in line. On the other hand I probably should have brought something to read or at least my iPod. By 7:30pm the line was full. Most people were dressed casually (it was a monster movie after all) but some wore expensive clothes. I guess it was somewhere between a Comic-con crowd and just another Friday night at the movies, except there were also one or two members of the press waiting in line.

Now, as to the actual movie…

“Monsters” is first and foremost, just like the title says, a film about monstrous creatures. The premise is somewhat reminiscent of last year’s “District 9.” The opening titles inform us that six years a NASA probe carrying samples of extra-terrestrial life crash-landed over Central America. Now most of Mexico is declared a quarantine zone, infested with towering creatures that can measure up to 150 feet. The American army regularly bombs the area with chemical weapons, but the creatures seemingly cannot be defeated or contained.

On the Mexican side of the infected zone a photojournalist is unwillingly given the task to escort his bosses daughter back to the United-States. Simple enough, but a series of unfortunate circumstances cause the daughter to miss the last ferry to the States. Because the creatures have a migration period that blocks certain maritime routes, they are left with one option: pay a fortune to travel across the infected zone.

This is the part of the movie that somewhat resembles “Jurassic Park”: people travelling through a jungle populated by lethal creatures that are out of this world. As they travelled down river on a dingy boat I was also reminded of “Apocalypse Now.” The deeper they travel, the more destruction they see. Hotels have been abandoned and reclaimed by the jungle, cars and boats hang in the trees, corpses lie on the road, and there are strange noises coming from the trees.

The other aspect of the movie is a moderately effective love story involving the two unknown leads. The photographer called Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) initially wants nothing to do with Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the boss’s daughter. Neither does she for that matter, since she plans to marry her fiancé once she reaches civilization. However, over time they begin to depend on each other. Sam is perfectly fluent in Spanish, while Andrew can only order Tequila. (That seems a little unusual for a journalist sent to Central America, but maybe it was his first assignment and he was taking lessons.) They also begin to make fun of each other’s flaws. “Doesn’t it bother you that bad things need to happen for you to make money?” she asks when referring to his desire to capture scenes of destruction. “What, you mean like doctors?” he replies. Touché.

Anybody who has been following the American news this year will also see the obvious immigration metaphor. When Andrew and Sam finally reach the border the first thing they see is a gigantic cement wall that would make anti-immigration supporters weep with joy. Then there is the Afghanistan angle. Mexicans are shown protesting the American bombing of the jungle, citing the high number of human casualties as a reason to stop the military activity. So, when the U.S army an enemy it cannot reason with, the plan is to bomb him until total victory is achieved, even if there is collateral damage.   

As for the monsters themselves, they are actually rarely seen which works just fine. One of the thrills of the movie is not knowing if there actually is a towering creature out there in the darkness. When one does finally appear in full view out of the darkness, it is huge, towering, glowing, and threatening, but unfortunately fake-looking. When its tentacles enter the gas station where Sam is hiding, the actress is obviously just looking at empty space and pretending that giant tentacles are moving around the room. Despite this shortcoming, the scene is thrilling. Sam is trapped inside and Andrew is watching helpless from outside. This is one of those moments when someone would whisper: “Do not make any sudden moves.”

After the end credits, British director Gareth Edwards showed up for a Q&A. He was very candid and humorous when it came to the movie’s production value. He worked with a very small budget and worked entirely on location. It seemed to me that some of the locations that the characters go through seemed to have been destroyed by a hurricane rather than an alien. That is because they were filmed in Galveston, Texas, which was ravaged by hurricane Ike.

Edwards had no problems recruiting extras since all he had to do was tell people that he was filming a movie about aliens and even police officers would volunteer to work for no money. Apparently they love those movies down there.

I mentioned earlier that the special effects looked cheap. That was my first impression when I saw the aliens so that’s why I wrote it. During the Q&A Edwards told the audience that he also made all of the special effects on his own computer, so with that knowledge in perspective they are in fact, pretty good. They did not look like they had been made by an army of special effects engineers at ILM, because, well they weren’t: they were made by only one guy, who wrote the script, directed the movie, and is now travelling the world trying to promote his movie. That is impressive by any standard.

Edwards also mentioned that he is not involved in the marketing process and left that to the marketing people, who as it turns out are a little upset with him. When he pitched his idea to the studio, he said he would be making a monster movie with a tiny budget. Understandably, that was music to their ears. What he gave them has elements of romance, politics, war, drama, and the occasional monster. Apparently the marketing people initially had no idea how to sell all of those ideas, so the trailer emphasizes the monster angle.

I will try to give Gareth Edwards a hand. If you are reading this GO SEE MONSTERS! Please. Its really good, and the director worked hard on it.


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