Like Cloverfield. But good.
Schadenfreude - the largely unanticipated delight derived from the misfortunes of others. A delicious, exquisite pleasure. A little like being a Scotsman in London the day England crashed out of the World Cup. Or watching two loathsome brothers fight over the Labour leadership only for the younger Aardman animated one to beat the reptilian-looking one. You know it's wrong but you just can't help savouring that little sip of other people's pain. You gotta love the Germans for giving us a word like schadenfreude. Unfortunately, they never gave us a word for the opposite sensation so we'll have to make do with plain old green-eyed envy. You know, like the feeling you get when one of your former classmates from film school gets his debut feature film screened at the Edinburgh International Film Festival creating an Internet buzz that’s louder than an angry swarm of African bees trapped in a lift. Annoyingly, the film in question, Gareth Edwards' Monsters is also damn good and has already won him a well-deserved Moët New Director award.
A space probe carrying samples of alien life crashes in Mexico, releasing gargantuan building-sized octopus-like critters, which quickly spawn, destroying anything in their rather simple-minded path (hotels, fighter jets, Mexicans). When a huge swath of the country is effectively declared a no-go zone and placed under US military quarantine, photo-journalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy), who’s South of the Border to bag a photo of the beasties, is ordered by his editor to find and rescue holidaying magazine proprietor’s daughter Sam (Whitney Able), making sure Daddy’s Little Girl catches the last boat out of Mexico and gets back to the USA alive and unharmed. But when things don’t go according to plan, the mismatched pair are forced to try and cross the dangerous Infected Zone themselves, at the height of monster season, in a desperate attempt to make it to the US border.
On paper Monsters owes more than a little to the JJ Abrams-produced Cloverfield (giant building-trashing monsters, night-vision action, good-looking people in peril…). Except it’s actually good. Unlike Cloverfield. And has protagonists you care about. Unlike Cloverfield. And big monsters that inspire as much awe as they do dread. Unlike Cloverfield. It’s a quietly intelligent film that uses the premise of giant building-trashing monsters to comment on cack-handed American imperialism, the War on Terror and the response to Hurricane Katrina. The scenes where the couple explore a devastated border town finding only one traumatised survivor echo the catastrophic destruction visited upon New Orleans or the unforgettable horror of 9-11 whilst the night-vision battle that opens the film could be torn from the nightly news footage of Iraq or Afghanistan.
Real-life newly-weds Able and McNairy are an affecting pairing you actually care about and their slow-burning, will they/won’t they romance is the film’s beating heart. Shooting in H-D has allowed the sickeningly talented young Edwards (he wrote the film, directed it, shot it and did the effects. Show-off) the freedom to take his camera with the protagonists from the teeming streets into the heart of the jungle lending the film a low-key, naturalistic, documentary feel, creating an plausibly immersive experience for the audience.
Maintaining an atmosphere of barely controlled tension from start to finish, the film subtly underplays its monstrous threat and, apart from the opening firefight, we see only hints of the creatures themselves for much of the running time (a tentacle here, a foot there) until the film’s climax which manages to not only be scary but beautiful as the couple experience a terrifying close encounter suffused with a childlike sense of wonder and majesty. Intelligent and assured, Monsters is a monster movie for grown-ups.
Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able