Well, Monsters, the new low budget/high production value Brit-horror that premiered at Frightfest and has now debuted On Demand, and at the iTunes and Playstation stores, answers the most pressing question facing the horror and monster film-making community at large:
How much better would our giant squid-monster film be if it was also a boring romantic comedy without any laughs?
Actually, Monsters takes this question one step further and makes the romance and mating of the squid monsters eclipse the stunning emotional retardation of our one-dimensional alleged characters of Monsters. Meet Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha (Whitney Able). Like just about every romantic comedy featuring Ashton Kutcher and Heidi Klum or one of the blonde actresses from one of the American Pie Direct-to-DVD sequels, Andrew must escort Samantha (she being the boss' daughter) home for the boss. Normally, the pitch for this would be "hilarity follows". However, in Monsters, the hilarity is dropped and replaced with the menace of CGI squid monsters that sort of amble around like they’re in another movie and only occasionally interacting with some of the stuff in this movie.
We open with a bunch of nameless American soldiers speeding along in their Hummvee until a giant squid-monster smashes it. This attack actually signals an annual migration of these giant squid-monsters. See, six years ago NASA sort of figured out that something approaching Earth might have extraterrestrial life on it and sent up a space probe. That probe broke up and fell back to Earth, and the giant space squid-monster storyline was born.
As an aside, I hope Zach Snyder finds himself watching this film and slaps himself in the forehead. "CGI squid," he would say, "why didn't I do that?"
Now, six years later the US government has built a massive concrete wall all along the Mexican border, and the Mexican government has built a massive fence half way through their country. The area between the wall and the fence is the infection zone and virtually no one is allowed inside. Helicopters constantly patrol the length of the fence, and as migration season approaches ferry and air traffic stops.
So far this is pretty detailed stuff, and it's actually well introduced. I know I pick on the characters for being less realistic than the paper PowerPuff Girl dolls that my 5 year old daughter makes. Gareth Edwards drops lots of information about the squid-monsters and their history through medium other than exposition. In fact, refreshingly, neither Andrew nor Samantha really comment on the monsters or their history for most of the film. Unlike say, Cloverfield, where, if the characters aren't recounting what just happened they are describing what you can see like if the guy witnessing the crash of the Hindenburg had a massive head injury.
What Edwards does is lets the news of that first attack we saw fill in a lot of the world building, but it's all in the background and if you don't give a shit about giant squid-monsters, then you don't have to watch because the principle characters are usually discussing their pointless character flaws anyway. Samantha, for what it's worth, doesn’t appear to have a job being the daughter of a media mogul, but is destined to return home to her "allergic" fiancé and a life of boredom. Her ring-wearing arms is injured during the original monster fight. Andrew wants to impress her dad and shoot some photos of the monster fight and subsequent devastation, but his job is to make sure she gets back to the USA safely. As he states "your dad pays fifty grand for a picture of a kid killed by one of the creatures, you know how much I get for a live kid?.. Nothing." If you don't think the whole marriage jitters and media profiting from dead kids thing won't get played out, then I've got a giant concrete wall along the Mexican/American border to sell you.
And, like Midnight Run, Vacation, Plains Trains and Automobiles, and The Road, the drama grows the closer that our characters get to the monsters in the infected zone. And, like in those films, it's circumstance and stupidity that put them in the position of having to cross the infected zone on foot.
The problem isn't that the characters seem only peripherally connected to the monsters - they aren't connected at all, but there's a general feeling of unease once Andrea and Samantha are forced to cross the infected area because a night of tequila drinking and stolen passports costs them two seats on the last ferry - It's that we don't really learn enough about the characters outside the events of the film to give a rat's ass about whether they make it.
The film is also an allegory about how the United States appears to the rest of the world, especially in light of our recent infighting about immigration. Since this film is written and directed by Gareth Edwards, a British dude, there's no clear political subtext, but the giant concrete wall, and the lax way it's staffed, are clearly meant to evoke the futility of the arguments around sealed borders, irrespective of the side on which you sit.
Finally, we spend some time with the people who help get Andrew and Samantha through the infected zone, and these folks, government employees who don't say much, a collection of different coyote who move people to the border, and their different views on the situation all get a little time. For the most part they are all played as sympathetic and extremely dispensable.
All that said, Monsters is still worth a view. The CGI squid monsters look pretty cool, although I'm tired of the visual motif and have been since right after Hellboy. The monsters, like in Cloverfield, are aloof to mankind and our weapons, mostly. They don't seem to want to invade cities and flatten stuff, but it happens. They are like big dinosaurs I guess. And since the cast isn't really interacting with them, it doesn't matter.
This is another in the new take on giant monsters meant to make them appeal to people who don't like giant monster films in general. But I tell you what, I'd like it if the monsters had more to do, and seemed to have a reason to do it.