December 3, 2010

Monsters: Now It's Our Turn to Adapt

MonstersBritish born Gareth Edwards had a vision. He was tired of watching movies about alien invading; those never told you what happened next? How did the people survive? How did they carry on with their lives, when their world was no longer entirely their own?

Moreover, Edwards wanted to prove that blockbluster special effects and brilliant cinematography could be achieved without a Hollywood budget. He wanted to create an intimate movie, against a backdrop of stunning scenery. He had $15,000; a crew of four other people; two American actors; and a van. He came to Mexico.

The result was 'Monsters'. It is set six years after aliens have created a colony on Earth. A NASA probe had been sent to collect samples from a world suspected of sustaining life. The spaceship got into trouble, on re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere, and crashed into the Mexico. The creatures that emerged soon began terraforming our world into one that could hatch their young. They were here to stay and now huge swathes of Mexico belong to them: the infected zone.

But that is just the backdrop. The movie focuses upon the human aspect, as seen through the eyes of two Americans and the people that they meet. Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is a photojournalist, who has arrived in Mexico to capture images of real people living right on the edge of the zone. He can get a lot of money for a picture of a dead child; or a tottering building; or a family rendered destitute and homeless by an alien raid.

Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) is the daughter of his boss. She's also in Mexico, which isn't thrilling her wealthy father. When she's involved in a accident, spraining her wrist, Kaulder receives a call from his boss. He's to find and chaperone Wynden back to America or find his career taking a downturn. It shouldn't take long. There is a train to the coast, then a ferry across the Gulf of Mexico, avoiding the infected zone.

Infected Zone

Obviously things don't work out as planned. Thus two days later, the couple find themselves relying on the kindness of strangers well within the zone itself. There is a sub-plot of a couple falling in love. The main story, though, is a chronicle of all they witness and experience en route.

This is Edwards's debut offering and it ticks the boxes of many genres: sci-fi, horror flick, post-apocolyptic/disaster movie, road movie, love story and 'long journey home' movie. Many are comparing it favorably to 'Cloverfield' and 'District 9', but it's not a remake of either. It feels like a documentary. 'Monsters' was in American theaters in the fall; and it is currently being launched to European cinema-goers.

Most remarkable of all is how the film was shot. Apart from McNairy and Able, every other person seen on the screen is not an actor. The van would pull up, at a likely location, and ask passer-bys if they would like to be in a movie. The fact that Able spoke fluent Spanish was a bonus in these negotiations. The cab driver was a real cab driver; the ticket vendor really does sell ferry tickets; the lady, who invited them into her home, was a real mother and that was really her home. They were actually her children. Edwards, via Able, would explain the plot and their role in it. They would be paid, there and then, for their part in the movie.

Mexican boy

Such an approach meant that a script quickly became impossible. Edwards wrote out a paragraph describing each scene. All of the dialogue was ad libbed, by the actors, at the time. Edwards gave them points to hit, but all of the rest was the couple emersing themselves into their characters.

On the subject of realism, McNairy and Able were a real life couple when Edwards hired them. They are both professional actors, but they had also been dating for four months. He wanted a couple who were actually in love. The movie shoot worked for them. They got married last month.

All of this does lead to a very intimate movie. It's not really about monsters. It's about people living in a world, which also happens to include something bigger and scarier than themselves.

Naturally, some cameo appearances were never going to be filmed in Mexico. You could climb onto the top of any Maya pyramid and gaze out across miles, as the couple in the film did, but no alien is going to come trampling into view. There is also a distinct lack of ravaged homes and rusting military vehicles. Those bits were added in later, on Gareth Edwards's home computer. He's very, very good.

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