Gareth Edwards did visual effects on some TV shows, the one I recognize is Nova, that nerd show on PBS. In 2008, he entered a 48-hour film festival and won, which paved the way for him to write and direct his first feature, Monsters. Relying on his expertise, he made the movie on a slim budget with a small cast and an even tinier crew. This got him enough exposure in Hollywood that a year later he was tasked with reviving the Godzilla franchise in the west. A modest critical and box office success, that reboot nonetheless got Edwards his next job: the first Star Wars spin-off. In like six years, he went from a contest to the biggest franchise in movies… And I don’t know why.
Speaking of six years, Monsters is set six years after alien material fell to earth along with an American satellite. Soon gigantic creatures started appearing where the debris landed, and eventually much of northern Mexico was quarantined off. In a particularly Trumpian move, the United States built a massive wall to keep the monsters at bay, while those in southern Mexico seem to just deal with the occasional attack. That leaves a lot of cities looking pretty messed, like the one this story starts in.
A man frantically looks around various wreckage sites, asking for a woman. He is Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photographer tasked with finding his boss’ daughter. After a few stops, he gets to a hospital where he finds Samantha (Whitney Able), the daughter, who is fine, save for a brace on her hand. Andrew hopes, now that he can confirm she’s fine, he can get back to photographing the creatures, but instead he is ordered to escort her back to the U.S. as soon as possible. So, without much conversation at all, they hop a train to the coast where she can catch a ferry.
Almost as soon as they leave, the train has to stop because the tracks are damaged, so Andrew and Samantha get off. You’d think this would be scary, but they immediately find a house where a friendly woman shows them where to go on a map, feeds them, lets them stay the night, then puts them on a van the next day. So, after that unnecessary diversion, they arrive at the coast. There, they have some fun, eat some food, and get drunk. Andrew ends up sleeping with a woman who disappears the next morning with their passports and Samantha’s ticket. The two are able to barter transportation, but the option of taking a ferry is off the table: they’ll have to sneak through the quarantine to get home.
White Americans hiring Mexicans to help them sneak back into the United States is a novel idea but if there’s any satire here, I totally missed it. Instead, most of the movie is about almost running into the creatures, which are like giant, light-up octopuses. As you might expect with a movie like this, they only really run into the monsters at the end, when two of them corner Andrew and Samantha at a gas station. But a clear look at the monsters make them appear kind of goofy and the two creatures just kind of makeout and wander off, it’s pretty anticlimactic.
Monsters has some good impulses. It tells a simple story that focuses on its characters, and plays up the mystery instead of focusing on the thrills of monster attacks. I think that’s smart, and a lot of the world-building is really great. It actually made me wonder if this was originally written as a found footage movie, given that the main character is a photographer and so much of the story is about taking in the setting and seeing it from the characters’ point of view. But what we got is not nearly visceral enough, I found it all kind of dull. Oh, and Samantha’s brace? The mysterious injury that the film keeps returning to? Don’t worry, she legit just sprained her wrist, there’s no twisted reveal that she’s infected or anything, it’s just a red herring, I guess.
The one thing I feel very confident saying is that Monsters looks like it cost a lot more than its $500,000 budget. But is that the reason to give a guy Godzilla? I mean, that’s one of the longest-lasting, most successful franchises in the history of cinema – is stretching the budget really the top concern? …Oh god, it is, isn’t it? The executives saw that this guy made an OK movie that looked expensive but wasn’t, and decided that was good enough for them. Holy shit, I’m sad now.
I know I’ve written about this before, but my least favorite movie trope is the giant, world-destroying beam of light. My second least-favorite is giant monsters hiding. It was a problem in the 1998 Godzilla, it was a problem with the 2014 Godzilla, and it comes up in Monsters a little bit, too. Hey, just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there – especially a gigantic beast that must expel so much heat, so many bad smells, and make so much noise just breathing. If I can’t sneak into the back of class, motherfucking Godzilla can’t turn a corner and disappear. Anyway, look forward to the scene in Rogue One when an AT-AT sneaks up on the rebels.