There has been plenty of positive buzz about this film, built around the fact that it was made on a reported shoestring budget. From that aspect, director Gareth Edwards has managed to make a great looking film; one would guess it had a much larger budget. All this attention seems to have overshadowed the fact that Monsters is not quite as good as some claim. It isn’t bad, mind you, it just has some flaws that many unbiased viewers will not be able to get over.
It is not uncommon for an indie film to make the film festival circuit and generate a lot of buzz, only to fall flat when exposed to general audiences. Many of these festival goers are too quick to give Edwards credit because they appreciate his efforts as a filmmaker. Ultimately, Monsters must be judged on what it delivers, not the good intentions and efforts of the director. When held up to this standard, especially other films of the genre, Monsters falls short.
Part of the problem is the fact that Monsters is not a monster movie. It’s not an alien movie. It’s a human drama with an alien invasion backdrop. The film is marketed as a Cloverfield or District 9 type of film, which it isn’t. I can’t fault Edwards for the marketing, but I do fault him for naming his film Monsters and opening the film with a Cloverfield type scene which builds expectations that don’t deliver. Had this film been given a different title, and not such a deceiving lead-in, Edwards could have avoided much of the disappointment his film will generate.
While I didn’t expect wall-to-wall alien monsters battling the military, I did expect the film to keep me engrossed when they aren’t on the screen. The film’s leads, played by Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, are good actors, but the script fails them by not giving them nearly enough interaction during the quiet periods (of which there are plenty). Instead, they spend most of the film talking to other people or saying nothing at all. For a film that sets up some serious social and political commentary, it rarely addresses them.
Even though the aliens get very little screen time, the film should have kept viewers engrossed. There just isn’t much tension or anticipation to suck you in. Edwards tries to keep it interesting, but the film falls flat for much of the second act. By the time it picks up in the final act, it is too little, too late.
Films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Signs (and yes, I did just drop a Shyamalan reference, sorry) are able to keep interest up with good character development and by building tension. Monsters fails to do that. At one point, we are teased with a possible alien appearance in a jungle scene only to discover it is a cow. A cow! Any other film would have paid off the tease right away, but it takes Monsters another ten minutes before something exciting happens.
Perhaps I am being too harsh, because as I said before, Monsters isn’t a bad film. It just isn’t particularly great. I don’t fault the budget; I fault director Edwards for getting close, but never hitting the mark. There were so many points where this film could have been great, but never seized the chance. It didn’t even require more CGI, just better storytelling.
As a human drama, the film is standard with a few nice moments at the end. As a science fiction film it falls short. While it had a lot of potential, it never quite achieved what it set out to accomplish. It is neither bold enough or daring enough, to be truly memorable.
MILD SPOILER TIME
If you get to see the film more than once, or watch it on DVD, there is a clever storytelling twist worth noting that viewers might miss. Here’s a countdown to avoid a mild spoiler:
After watching the film’s final scene, go back and watch the opening scene again. Watching both a second time will provide the viewer a little more insight into the story.
BUY IT, REDBOX IT, OR NETFLIX IT?
Monsters is worth a rent for both sci-fi fans and lovers of human drama. Just don’t set your expectations too high, and you may be pleasantly surprised. Overall I give it 3 out of 5 stars, so if you want to check it out on your own be sure to see it when it releases Oct. 29th 2010.