Sunday, May 3, 2015
Written and directed by Gareth Edwards
Scoot McNairy: Andrew Kaulder
Whitney Able: Sam Wynden
Time to come back from a week or two off (turns out that writing 22,000 words on the Atlas Shrugged movies will take it out of you for a little while, and I also went on a weekend vacation to watch a bunch of horror movies at a drive-in five hours away from Casa Telstar; expect a writeup of Dawn of the Dead when I feel like I'm up to the challenge of saying something new about a movie almost as old as I am, and an acknowledged genre classic to boot). So it's time to take a look at something a little more scaled-down. This film was the calling card for writer-director Gareth Edwards that caused Hollywood to notice him; his 2014 Godzilla was a success not just at the box office, but as a piece of cinema as well. We aren't getting a sequel till 2018 because he's working in the George Lucas toybox, reportedly making a Star Wars film that tells the story of exactly how the Death Star plans got into the hands of the Rebel Alliance.
Not bad for a guy whose first film featured an improvised script, a main cast of two, a production crew capable of fitting in a single van and visual effects done at home on an off-the-shelf PowerMac and consumer-grade CGI software. The closest comparison would likely be Robert Rodriguez' El Mariachi, another film made with whatever the writer / director / cinematographer / caterer had lying around at the time. Will Edwards have a similar quarter-century movie career doing lots of whatever he wants to do? Well, find me a science-fiction fan who wouldn't want to be making Godzilla and Star Wars movies if they had a chance and I might be able to answer that question completely but my guess is "HELL YEAH".
So. The movie:
Prologue text (in the same font I use for the Checkpoint, coincidentally enough--that Edwards kid has great taste in typefaces) sets the stage: Somewhere in the solar system, alien life was spotted. The NASA probe that went to go collect bits of alien DNA apparently found some, but the returning craft blew up over Mexico, scattering terrestrially compatible creature bits all over that country. The resulting alien beasts have turned the northern half of Mexico into a quarantine zone, or, rather, the American and Mexican authorities have done so (because the alien beasts haven't been eradicated in six years--and I'm guessing the combined countries' militaries tried really hard to do that).
We get one of those "dropped into the middle of the action" beginnings; over a black screen, shouted voices and slamming car doors give way to a night-vision camera revealing a bunch of military men in a patrol humvee, talking amongst each other about how everyone needs a theme song (I couldn't agree more). Out of nowhere there's a shrieking noise, a flurry of something that looks like tentacles and the camera shatters. Roll credits, interspersed with the surviving soldiers firing on some sort of fifty foot tall alien beast that--in the grainy night-vision scene--seems to be a cross between an octopus and a funeral lily while some people try to drag other crash victims away from the immobilized vehicle. The last image before the title MONSTERS fills the screen is a missile-camera view of the creature getting closer and closer. The impact itself is silent because 1) the camera that was recording the scene just smacked into a kaiju at 500 miles an hour and 2) Gareth Edwards wasn't making an action movie.
An indeterminate amount of time earlier, an English-speaking man in "San Jose, Central America" makes his way from the aftermath of an alien attack (I don't know if Edwards lucked into seeing tanks on the street while he was filming and cut that into the movie or if the military vehicles are composited into the film via his off-the-rack effects software). He seems to be doing all right with communication but that's much more because the people he's talking to have some English rather than his own linguistic skills. Using his pidgin-Spanish vocabulary the man eventually tracks down a Samantha Wynden in her hospital room and introduces himself as Andrew Kaulder. He's a reporter for the New World Chronicle, a newspaper that Wynden's father owns (he's wearing a polo shirt with the logo on it, which might well have been a handout from the last Chronicle company picnic or something). He's there to check up on the boss's daughter after the incident that was too thrilling and expensive to actually depict.
At least, that's what Kaulder thought. We catch the end of a phone call where his editor tells him that his new job is escorting Sam to "the coast", where she will be retrieved and sent back to the USA where there are fewer giant monsters threatening the peace. This doesn't thrill him at all; not only is he not supposed to be an errand boy for the publisher, he's been waiting three years for a chance to do something near the Infected Zone and it looks like he's going to miss out on it thanks to the task he was just volunteered for. While in the taxi with Sam, Kaulder takes a few photos of things like military rocket-launcher vehicles with WARNING -- TOXIC HAZARD painted on them (apparently chemical weapons are being deployed against the alien monsters). Sam chats with the taxi driver in Spanish; the driver says that monster attacks are just part of life in the big city and that he doesn't have anywhere else to go. I'm guessing that all the neighboring countries are unwilling to let a bunch of new immigrants in when they've all got their own problems, and I'm sure that the Fox News commentators in this world call immigration the Mexican menace every week (while occasionally showing footage of the monsters).
At the train station, Kaulder gets two tickets to the coast while Sam talks to her father about how bad the attack looked on TV versus how mild it (apparently) was to be there; Sam's arm is in a sling but it's not busted, so there's that. As the train pulls up, the publisher asks to talk to Andrew (and despite mouthing that he doesn't want to do that, Sam hands the phone over to him). After promising that he'll get Sam back to America safely, Kaulder disengages from the phone call and the pair runs to catch their train before it can pull away without them. On the train, there's a little small talk between the pair and it's revealed that Andrew is a photojournalist who took plenty of pictures of dead aliens but wants to get a front-page-worthy shot of one of the live ones. Which I don't think makes a huge amount of sense; certainly over the last six years there were shots of live aliens in the news. There's been in-universe news footage of the attack on San Jose on a TV on the background of a shot, so views of the live aliens can't be that rare. Or I'm misinterpreting the dialogue and Kaulder wants to get a shot of an alien just doing alien stuff rather than getting shot, blown up, or set on fire by the American and / or Mexican militaries. Anyway, both of them get off on the wrong foot conversationally but they're also both polite enough that it doesn't turn into anything big. Just a little awkwardness between grownups who never met and are now seatmates for a lengthy train ride. Oh, and Samantha has a cast and bandage on her left hand that apparently is itching underneath the dressing. I don't think this movie has the budget to have her go Full Prawn, but usually hearing something like that in a science-fiction or horror movie in the first act means something's gonna be happening in the third.
Even during the train sequence the monsters are a constant presence--seeing or hearing military aircraft or seeing train cars lying in a row at the bottom of a gully reminds the viewer that there are gigantic alien animals in the region, although they appear to have been dealt with by the armed forces where the train's running (during the overnight portion of the trip, there's explosions in the distance over a hill, so some of the monsters are getting lit up far enough away that Kaulder can't get any pictures of it). An announcement over the PA clues Sam in to a problem ahead on the track; Kaulder decides to get off the train before it turns around and heads back to San Jose, reasoning that the Zone is miles away so there's nothing to worry about. He's wrong, but instead of a monster attack it just turns out that they're 100 klicks away from where they want to be, at night, in the cold, with no transportation options (it turns out having a bus schedule for the area would have clued them in to the lack of bus lines). Also, nobody in town is willing to drive at night because of beast attacks, so it's going to be tomorrow morning at the earliest to get anyone to ferry the pair to their destination. Oh, and if that wasn't enough of a spanner in the works, the military's closing the area down in two days in order to try and contain the monsters, so if Sam and Kaulder don't get to their destination in 48 hours or so, they're stuck in the ass end of nowhere for six months until the army lets them leave.
Nice going, Andrew.
The Mexican single mom who gives the pair the bad news about transportation is nice enough to make them dinner and let 'em crash on the couch (it doesn't hurt that her baby seems to like both Sam and Andrew). News reports of the military attacks starting earlier than usual "this season" on the TV fill in a little bit of the world's background. But life goes on, even on the edges of an alien-contaminated war zone. Andrew winds up shooting a few megapixels' worth of memory in the village, including lots of shots of children wearing gas masks (there's also a cartoon on TV that tells kids to put on a gas mask whenever there's a tentacled beast around, so it looks like exposure to the monsters is toxic one way or another). The pair of gringos leaves in the morning, with Andrew visibly uninterested in hanging around a second longer than necessary, and Sam being friendly towards the kids and the woman who sheltered them for the night. They're in for a long walk along a highway dotted with ZONA INFECTADA signs and an eventual ride from a good Samaritan in a pickup truck. On the positive side, Kaulder's a little friendlier with people after his walk; I'm guessing that a ride in the back of the truck is so much better than trudging on foot that he's getting plenty of serotonin in his bloodstream.
The next village down has a bus station (or at least a bus); looks like they'll be getting a little closer to the coast. Andrew asks a local family if there are creatures around, and it turns out that there were, but not any more. The rusted-out tank in a shallow pond testifies to the battle against the aliens three years ago. One guesses that it was damaged too badly to be repaired and it's too expensive to move it. Sam asks Andrew if he feels bad about his career path, since he makes money when bad things happen ("You mean like a doctor?" is Andrew's response, which is pretty clever.) The bus driver signals that it's time to get moving, but the journalist points out that Sam's dad pays $50,000 for a picture of a child killed by a creature and nothing for one of a happy kid. He's been taking plenty of shots of happy children so far when he knows he won't be materially compensated for them, so it seems likely that Kaulder isn't nearly as much of a jerk as he appears from the surface. Or it's only his self-serving justification for getting paid to record pain and suffering.
The bus drops our protagonists off by the ferry dock, where patrol ships and aircraft move around near the fence that marks the start of the infected zone (and which looks really flimsy compared to what I'd expect to be built to keep alien monsters on the other side). After visiting several ferry offices, Andrew finally finds one that has a ticket to America for sale, although it's for the next day (and the ticket seller implies that tomorrow morning's ferry is the last one out of the area). It's five thousand dollars for a ticket, which is what you get when people set their own prices for something desirable and scarce. People who don't have that much money are waiting in the ticket office for someone to guide them over the land route to get to the USA (which means going on foot through the Zona Infectada). Both Sam and Andrew are taking it pretty well that they've been wearing the same clothes for two or three days, by the way. I would have expected quite a bit more grumbling, especially from the male character. Andrew's bargaining tactics bring the ferry operator down to $5,000 from his original price of $5,000 and Sam's got her ticket for the 7 AM boat ride back to America in the morning. So the pair just has to wait one more night before it's time for Sam to leave. It's only twenty minutes into the film, so I'm betting something is going to go wrong.
At the hotel that night, the TV news (in English) shows grainy night-time footage of tanks attacking huge spindly alien beasts while the anchorman says the creatures are swarming the perimeter of the infected zone in more than a dozen spots. Andrew wants to go out to a bar to celebrate getting to the end of the journey; Sam thinks it would be a hell of a lot more sensible to stay indoors, rest up and not miss the ferry at seven. I think she's got the much better idea, especially after the TV reports that the aliens aren't going to make it to wherever the pair are for another two days. I'd probably sleep overnight at the ferry office, myself, if I could. At the very least it'd be a good idea to do whatever was necessary to get the hell out of Dodge safely and quietly. Though I'm looking at it from the perspective of someone who isn't used to six years of news and weather describing things as partly cloudy with a small chance of alien biotoxins drifting in on the wind.
Sam decides to grab a shower while there's time; Andrew calls his son to wish him a happy birthday (but tells Sam that it was the front desk saying his room was ready when she asks). After Sam puts her dirty clothes back on it's time for some street food, street booze, and street squeaky noisemakers that you apparently stick in your mouth to make silly sounds of various types. The pair seems much more relaxed and at ease with each other at this point; a full belly and silly noises will do that for you. I'm digging the chemistry between the two leads (who were the only two professional actors in the cast, and were dating at the time of the filming--they got married afterwards, which I think is neat).
Then things get serious--candlelit shrines to people who died in "Los Attaques", as a mural lists it, fill the frame with a soft, golden light and the soundtrack dwindles down to a soft score rather than the mariachi instrumentation that heralded the street-food carnival atmosphere just a moment ago. There's a really impressive rooftop shot of the town square lit by hundreds--or even thousands--of candles. I'm trying to avoid unpacking the sociological baggage involved here, because whatever the candle-lit memorial was in real life, it's being repurposed by the filmmakers to commemorate the five thousand dead in the monster attacks from half a decade ago. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want a September 11 memorial procession to get used in a Blind Dead movie, so let's just agree not to bring it up again and move on. As the night passes, Sam and Andrew talk a bit more, and Sam reveals that one of the reasons her father was so hell-bent on her coming back to America on time is that her wedding is the next day. No wonder Mr. Wynden was so commanding on the phone.
As the night passes on, it's time for our revelers to get a little sleep and prepare for the big day tomorrow (ferry at 7 AM and the rest of Sam's happily married life ahead of her; back to the war zone to take pictures for the New World Chronicle for Andrew). Andrew's more than a little drunk and tries (unsuccessfully) to talk his way into Sam's room--allegedly just because the air conditioner is busted in his room, but he's macking on her as well. He gets sincere when he says he had a really good time hanging out, but doesn't get invited into Sam's room regardless. Sam stays up most of the night, thinking, while Andrew goes out and gets drunk(er) in a fit of pique.
The next morning, it is revealed that Andrew picked up a woman for a one-night stand; Sam finds this out when he opens the door for her (and she goes from wanting to get a cup of coffee with her guide to leaving immediately when she sees the other person sleeping in there). He runs out of the hotel room in his boxers to try and talk to Sam--and it turns out that she can't board the ferry without her passport, which is in Andrew's hotel room. "Is"? Oh, crap, make that "was". The woman Andrew picked up swiped them and ran while he was out doing his romantic comedy walk and talk.
Time for another "Nice going, Andrew", I think.
Sam swaps her engagement ring for a ticket to go via the ground. Judging from the appraisal that the ferry owner gives, she's not the first one to barter with jewelry. And Andrew declares that her ring is going to buy two tickets to get back to the States through the Zona Infectada, because he wants to spend more time with Sam, it's his fault that she's in the situation she's in, and because it's a way to make sure nothing happens to her on the trip back. There's some great doubt and apprehension over Scoot McNairy's face here; he looks more than a little like Bill Paxton when he's trying not to panic or flip out.
A few bribes and some official collusion later, Sam and Andrew are on their way to the infected zone with some brand new paperwork that says they're aid workers and biologists who were supposed to be studying the creatures but lost their passports. They're probably getting used to riding in the back of a pickup truck by now. That truck takes them to a village where a fishing boat operator says it's too close to the dangerous season and he's not willing to risk his life without more American cash in his hand. Eventually he settles on going through the zone but not over the American border. Andrew doesn't speak Spanish so he has no idea what's going on at this point, and Sam was too far away to effectively eavesdrop.
Onward! During the boat trip there's plenty of decaying abandoned buildings (which may or may not have been there already for Edwards' crew to capture) and the occasional sign of creature activity like a rusting steamship in the middle of a forest--possibly a nod to an image of a boat in a tree from Aguirre, the Wrath of God (another movie concerned with travel logistics in Central America, but the only creature it had was a steadily deteriorating Klaus Kinski). At a fuel-and-bathroom stop, there's a bellowing animal noise off in the forest--the closest either protagonist has been to a creature so far, which is also a great way to remind the audience for a movie called Monsters that there are likely to be some monsters in it. Up to this point it was almost a science-fiction / horror version of Before Sunrise, which is a totally awesome idea. There might have been some version of the movie where the characters go into the rain forest to look for whatever was making the noises, but Andrew decides it's a lot safer and smarter to get back on the boat and leave.
Back on the boat, Andrew reveals a little bit of what's been going on with his life: A couple years ago, a one-night stand called him up and informed him that she had a child with him; the woman said that he can see his kid, but he's not to be considered a father or be part of their lives. Immediately after this, Andrew asks Sam if she's got any pets as an intentional way to get to a less depressing subject; I found it kinda charming that the pair of them are comfortable enough with each other to be playful during a boat ride through the Zona Infectada. Just as Andrew expresses shock and dismay that Sam's fiancee is allergic to anything she'd want to have as a pet, the boat's outboard motor craps out and it's time for the pilot and helmsman to dick around with a wrench set and see if they can get it running again before dusk. SPOILER: They do not. As the night falls, one of the boat crew notices something in the water and fetches a flashlight; Sam takes up another one. They can't quite figure out what they're looking at, but eventually it turns out to be an alien animal playing with a sunken jet fighter; Andrew's camera flash induces the alien to emit a luminescent display from under the water. Everyone is greatly relieved when the engine starts working again and the boat can get the hell out of this area safely.
Now rather behind schedule, the boat putters along into the rising dawn past more crumbling and rusted-out boats and buildings. The boat captain pulls up at his rendezvous point and drops Sam and Andrew off with a small group of armed dudes in green fatigues (Andrew is incredulous but they've gone too far to turn around at this point). After a lengthy wilderness hike it's time for a campout with the paramilitary guys and some dialogue about whether or not "the wall" is going to keep the aliens out; I can't help but wonder how much of the improvised chatter was about monsters from another world and how much of it was about desperate people from south of the Texas border trying to make it into the States, and whether or not spending a ton of money would keep them out completely. The one guy who saw a creature up close (claiming it was more than 250 feet tall by his reckoning) doesn't map on to real-world concerns quite so closely. There's also some talk from the armed escorts about the military dropping chemical weapons on the creatures, so it's at least possible that the gas masks everyone's supposed to wear in the event of a monster sighting are meant to protect them from the American / Mexican military response rather than from the creatures themselves.
One more piece of the mystery gets revealed here--there are fungal growths on the trees in the jungle that display flickering light patterns when the trail guides shine a flashlight on them (it's a simple but remarkably striking effect; the fungi look simultaneously like they belong in the forest and also utterly, utterly alien). The escorts explain that the fungi are the egg sacs for creatures; the eggs are laid on the trees, and when the infant creatures hatch they make their way to the river to live out the rest of their life-cycles. This means that napalming the jungle to bare ash would potentially be one way to stop the invasive species, but one guesses that it's too expensive and environmentally disastrous, in that order, for it to be seriously considered by the political leaders of the US and Mexico.
Later that night, when the trail guides are asleep, Sam and Andrew have a bit of a moment as he unwraps her bandaged hand and they talk around what it means for either of them to be on this experience together (and why Andrew was an asshole for picking up someone for a one-night stand and getting their passports stolen). The low-key and growing connection between the two is a nice counterpoint to the increasingly odd alien life around them in the jungle. Sure, the world is possibly being terraformed into an alien landscape bit by bit, but these two crazy kids are starting to realize that they really, really like each other.
Still later that night, the camp's walkie-talkie picks up what sounds like a disastrous battle against the creatures and everyone bugs out (with Andrew looking around for his camera, which contains plenty of pictures of his entire odyssey and is also the main tool for him to do his job). Shortly after everyone takes off from the encampment the pickup truck convoy grinds to a dead stop and all the guides put on their gas masks (Andrew: "Do we get a gas mask? Can we have one gas mask?"; I bet he'd give it to Sam.) Then the first real shot of a creature is shown to the audience, and it's a doozy as ropy tentacles reach down and haul the lead pickup truck completely out of frame--and I was impressed at how the scene was shown from inside the second truck where the two protagonists are watching, because it puts the viewer in that scene rather than outside of it. Also you instantly worry for Sam and Andrew because there's no indication of how many creatures there are out there, and whether or not they're going to start playing with the second truck. There's a brief one-sided fight between three or four guys who brought assault rifles to an alien beast fight and then a second creature shows up while Sam and Andrew cower in the back of a beat up VW microbus. The second creature hauls the third (and last) truck out of the convoy and plods off, leaving the two survivors alone in the forest. In the morning, the only sign of the trail guides is a mutilated body that Kaulder finds and controls his nausea long enough to get a gas mask (and retrieve his camera). That camera doesn't get pressed into service when Andrew finds the corpse of a young girl among the wreckage; he passes up what he knows would be a $50,000 payday to cover the poor kid's body instead. He doesn't realize that Sam's watching him until after the fact, and it's nice to know he's got a functioning soul even--or especially--when he thinks nobody is observing him. He grabs a second gas mask from another body, shakes the skin juice out of it, and the pair of travelers set off silently for the border.
After another day's hard travel (without food or water, as far as I can tell) Sam spots a ruined pyramid in the distance and the pair check it out; from the top of the temple they can see the gigantic wall that marks the start of American territory and reflect on what it means to be so close to their goal but still unable to get there for the time being. Thank goodness Andrew says "It's so different to look at America from the outside", giving the film its George Romero Subtle Commentary merit badge. Night falls as Sam requests a change of subject and the pair discuss the way people laugh when they're with different people; the mood lightens as night falls.
The next morning the pair makes their way to the US border (including a really nifty cut-in-half roadway that the filmmakers lucked into finding), approaching the towering concrete walls. There's nobody manning the checkpoint back into the States, though. I was greatly amused at how clean the "infected zone" warning signs were on the American side of the wall; it's one more example of the remarkable and budget-conscious world building that Edwards pulled off with his movie. Neither character has a smart phone to check the news, so they're stuck inferring that something's gone wrong when they see a massive plume of smoke in the distance and note an EVACUATION ROUTE 9 MILES sign by the roadside. The town they've crossed into is completely empty as well, with devastated houses (and rotting creature carcasses) attesting to some kind of fight against the alien beasts within the recent past. The only other person they find is a homeless woman who isn't actually an exposition delivery system, which I would have expected from a less considered movie.
An abandoned gas station with the lights still on provides Andrew a chance to make a call to 911 and get a little bit of information from the dispatch operator. A military patrol is supposed to collect him and Sam soon and the pair of survivors talk for a little while about completely unrelated things while they wait for the rescue. They split up for privacy while Andrew calls his son for a happy-birthday call and Sam gets in touch with her father to let him know that she's all right, if a bit tired and thirsty after making her way through the infected zone and blundering into another phase of the alien war of biological extermination. While the pair sit down to take a load off, lighting in the distance reveals that there's one of the creatures moving on top of the gas station's roof--I'm assuming it was attracted by the lights. Sam notices the pair of tentacles exploring the station's interior before a self-pitying Andrew hears the thing moving around the antiseptically white, fluorescent-lit mini mart. Inside the store, the creature presses its tentacles to the TV screen (that is, like so many others in the film, showing footage of the military fighting a creature). When Sam unplugs the set, the alien instantly loses interest in the television and retracts its limbs out the front door.
And then a second creature shows up--and to all appearances it looks like the night time is the right time for alien romance. Sam and Andrew watch, fascinated and silent, as the aliens consummate a relationship (as far as I can tell) and wander back off into the night. Now I know where the mating display between the pair of MUTOs came from in the most recent Godzilla movie; it seems that Edwards is a big fan of alien biology, not just someone who likes big creepy monsters. In the distance, the promised military convoy approaches and Sam admits that she doesn't want to go back to her cookie-cutter life set out ahead of her. She and Andrew kiss as the military shows up; they wind up pulled away into separate vehicles in the convoy--and I'm guessing that the night-vision footage from the beginning of the film is depicting those characters' deaths via alien attack. Shoulda kept the headlights off on the humvees, guys.
What an achievement! Edwards took a half-million dollar budget and gave a portrait of a world losing the fight against a John Wyndham-style alien invasion, where the two different species are totally incapable of communicating with each other and will necessarily be fighting to the extinction of one of their number. And it doesn't look like humanity is going to win this one. Using a cast of nonprofessionals other than the two leads and a heavily improvised script we get a view at a world slowly losing its grip on the biosphere and the way that humanity is coping (or not) with the demands of the strange new world. I certainly would have liked more monsters in a movie with the title that this one has, but there are certain realities with a $500,000 budget that just have to be accepted. There's a great deal of assurance behind the camera and some genuinely magnificent world-building touches salted through the entire run time. Given the somewhat tepid and obligatory "well, I guess we belong together after all" wrapup I'd expect most viewers to share my reaction to the film--endlessly fascinating to look at around the edges with a center that doesn't quite hold up as well. But there's some fantastic scenery to look at, and some of the best ugly urban buildings since Hard Times giving way to the jungle, and then to the antiseptic American ghost town. Even if the main plot isn't up to the task of holding the audience's interest the frame is full of things to look at and enjoy.