Monsters Gareth Edwards (2010; UK) Scoot McNairy; Whitney Able
Viewed: 5 Dec 2010 Tyneside Cinema; ticket price £7.50
Octopussies assoap opera
Monsters( M) is billed as a horror movie, tagged as made on a low budget, tagged as an allegorical commentary on American paranoia, tagged as the creative output of the director Gareth Edwards (GE) who as well as directing, wrote, did camera and CGI work.
The overall result is a badly written, badly acted, badly directed and shot movie, lacking in tension and intensity, a movie that has found favour with the usual British reviewers who lap up any UK film with a low budget price tag.
I found myself thinking about other low budget horror movies: Blair Witch Project and Dan Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Blair Witch although ultimately one dimensional had a grunge stylised look that gave it a verve that almost carried the day. It also took care to keep the camera as an edgy ambiguous recorder with shifting perspective, and, not to allow the viewer to see the scary things: glimpses perhaps but no more. ‘Invasion’ is a triumph of it’s ‘noir style’ camera work and central plot idea, in which we see ‘the aliens’ all the time but they are indistinguishable from humans, which makes you think. Also ‘Invasion’s’ multi layered dimensionality relating to human I.D. and its effortless allegoric referencing of US society, produces a powerful schizo-political statement, that still has resonance.
M’s film style is reminiscent of low budget soap operas. Filmically GE’s camera does no more than frame its objects adequately. It makes no use of camera frame to suggest different perspectives or as an entity introducing an edgy point of view. This is box brownie stuff not cinematography. M’s look is HD soap: a hard edged look lacking luminescence, presenting a flat ‘you see what you get’ image.
The sets and settings are dominated by a small palette of ideas that through overuse ultimately lack conviction. Big signage is the principle means used to give us information about the locations, Everywhere large public notices have been slapped into place relating to the INFECTED ZONE. There is nothing wrong in itself with this dressing, except that repeated use throughout the film, calls attention to them as an increasingly desperate device.
The signage is the main source of coherent information during the film which sets up its backstory with a couple prefatory intertitle cards. Besides the signage M has two other conduits of visual information: the ruined blasted buildings and the omnipresence of military hardware that frets throughout the film: planes, tanks ‘copters either zipping through the settings, or zapped dead hulks part of the conflict torn warscape. The problem is that these affects function as signs without signification. Neither the weapons nor the military paraphernalia mean anything. They present as affect without purpose; likewise the warscapes of shattered and ruined structures. They don’t signify at any level. They have neither an absurdist reading nor purposive meaning. They are banal locations, empty sets, characterised by formulaic apocalyptic imagery and the desire to convey, in a kind of visual shorthand, an atmosphere of apocalyptic conflict.
The ‘monsters’ element of M, is increasingly relegated to being an incoherent background story against which the main event, the love story between Sam (fiancee’d heiress and she of the mysterious injured hand) and Calder (photo journalist) plays out. All that can be said about this romantic narrative core is that it is laboured and uninspired in its development. The acting is pure ‘played out preppy style’ soap, lacking filmic sensibility. The terrible acting is handicapped by leaden dialogue that leads the two characters by the nose. In particular the scene where the two protagonists barter for a ferry ticket is memorably bad, as are Calder’s little lecture to Sam about dolphins, a telegraphed message that Calder is really an OK type of guy.
Unless a film is pure SFX, putting monsters on screen is difficult to realise effectively. M is a case in point, where the appearance of the Monsters falls far short of anything we might imagine. When seen in the film, they look just like many other movie creations: big octopussies full of tentacles. GE lets them loose in the film with full Jurassic Park sound effects, just as image (except in the final section they have no other role in M other than as image). As image simple, they generate neither intensity nor tension. They are nothing more than a necessary gesture used by GE to complete his film. In the final sequence, set at an abandoned gas station (every cliché in the book in this movie) we watch with the protagonists as two of the Monsters have a Brando moment and light up each other with fairy lights. In the context of the movie, the performance seems nothing more than GE’s genuflection to political correctness, suggesting that Monsters have feelings too! Or perhaps setting up a sequel told from the monsters point of view.
There have been a number of movies, sort of installations, built on the idea of movement through an apocalypse scenario: blasted landscapes blasted dangerous people. In this ‘apocalypse’ genre either pure incoherence of affect has to totally characterise the scenario, or the film has to take on some signifier built into quest orthe relations in which the final days setting also has to have meaning. Incoherence in itself does not equate with apocalypse as GE seems to think.