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Monsters: Special Edition

Magnolia Home Entertainment // R // February 1, 2011
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted February 7, 2011 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Gareth Edwards' Monsters knows exactly what kind of film it wants to be, and I applaud the director for taking the risk in bringing it to life. After all, his film does little justice to the title by containing only a handful of sequences featuring actual octopus-looking monsters, and several of them won't instill much in the way of dread. But that's not the kind of movie Edwards aims for; instead, this intimately-shot indie uses the presence of beings that humanity doesn't understand as a pervasive backbone for allegory-laced suspense, focusing instead on the relationship between a photojournalist and a wealthy daddy's girl as they cope under neo-apocalyptic circumstances -- and with their individual woes. Monsters is neither as aggressive nor as symbolically agile as it could be, but the mood crafted within its restrained suspense builds it into a distinctive, genre-defiant experience that's not easily forgotten.

Edwards sketches out a dystopian universe that resembles something of a "contained" apocalypse, where monsters spread throughout Mexico after a NASA probe crash-landed in the area. The events created a quarantined "infected zone" featuring large tentacle-laden organisms that, routinely, seem to attack in highly-televised incidents once or twice throughout the year, while also causing the citizens to cautiously wear gas masks when -- if --passing through the area. The actual story at-hand focuses on a young woman, Samantha (Whitney Able), who's injured in Mexico and needs escort back to the United States. Muck-scraping photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) reluctantly agrees to help, since her father holds power over a publication that Andrew regularly contributes to, which puts the wheeling-and-dealing in motion as they arrange transport across the infected zone to the United States border.

There's an apparent fork in the road within Monsters, a direction Gareth Edwards could've gone under different circumstances. Instead of blitzing through character establishment to get to beasts ripping victims in half and stomping through buildings, he instead methodically takes his time in allowing Andrew and Sam to develop a relationship. Lush, appealing cinematography shot by Edwards himself replaces any form of erratic high-activity movement as it captures both in-tact areas and those hammered with dilapidation, while a pulsating score from Jon Hopkins (The Lovely Bones) backdrops the pair's movement through outlying villages and cities. It paints an image of pseudo-normalcy, of containing the infected zone within the stunning location, with the danger of monsters only looming in the distance. Evidences of their presence can only be seen by way of crashed planes, rusted tanks, and eye-catching signs illustrating the zone's nearness scattered along the road, as well a television broadcasts.

Edwards instead creates a suspenseful journey film with Monsters that shows how two people with rocky pasts and equally-trying presents grow closer through tough circumstances in a post-"event" climate, while also turning a critical eye to the world's comprehension of threats -- all for a reported $500k. Conversations over why Andrew takes photographs of the monster attacks (and why these photographs are valuable) and scenes capturing people in mourning over related deaths replace biological explanations or other beleaguered reasoning as to "why" it all happens, instead focusing on the grandness of the monsters' presence and the way it affects humanity. That's not to say that Edwards doesn't have an eye for tension; ignoring actual contact with monsters as Sam and Andrew travel through waterways and foliage-dominated forests actually heightens their presence once they do arrive.

I wouldn't recommend waiting for them to appear, though. Edwards uses monsters as a periphery device, only dropping them into his story when they're absolutely needed. Agitated sounds growl and stomp in the distance, but it's only to heighten the immediacy of getting Andrew and Sam safely to their destination. In that, Monsters shares more in common with Harrison's Flowers and It Happened One Night instead of bombastic monster blockbusters; the idea of a threat looms in the distance, but it's used to bolster the intensity between individuals and their scramble to a specific location. With lesser actors and a less-aware script, the director's focus could've crumbled into its modest aims, but his stalwart two-actor setup shape its science-fiction scaffolding into an effectively unique drama-driven experiment. It's low on action bumps, but it's also captivating in its ability to slipstream along the "infected" area with ever-present human tension at its back.

But there's a lot going on to compliment the lack of persistent action, though it focuses on thematic beats instead of visceral ones. Monsters leaves one pondering alien life forms instead of relishing in their destruction, while taking a figurative peek at humanity's need to suppress what it doesn't understand. Edwards scatters obvious figurative bursts throughout Andrew and Sam's journey that could (easily) tie into a critique on illegal immigration, but the comparison's a bit ham-fisted politically to be taken on an effectual level. It does tap into the climate, however, to create a consistent twinge of suspense in their travels through the monster-laden zone, while also etching out memorable images of destruction that remind one of the "war on terror". And Edwards effectively juggles it all on an extremely low budget, serving as the central nervous system as he builds towards a climax that's breathtaking in both physical and, most importantly, in poignant scope.

The Blu-ray:

Monsters arrives on Blu-ray from Magnolia/Magnet Releasing, contained in a standard single-disc clear-blue case. A cardboard slipcover that replicates the underlying cover artwork adorns the outside, with raised, shiny lettering over the film's title. Inside, an iTunes Digital Copy code can be found, which enables the film's playaback on PCs and portable devices.

Video and Audio:

Monsters, as will be made quite obvious while screening the film, was shot digitally with a slick Sony camera that shares a few similarities with commonplace SLR cameras. Magnet/Magnolia's Blu-ray preserves the appropriate look and 2.35:1 aspect ratio within its HD AVC encode, and the results are a high-definition treatment that reflects on the source material with impressive accuracy. Many sequences will show off a lot of detail, such as close-ups on Whitney Able's poncho, attractive depth-of-field plays on the riverboat, densely-textured environmental elements like dead fish and rustled dirt, and wide expanses that look off into the numerous shooting locales' horizons. Some background textures are smooth though, as dictated by the digital source's limitations, while some faint instances of aliasing and heavier grain do appear.

Lower-light sequences suffer more than lighter ones, as to be expected, with the night shots around the Mexican town showcasing some extremely heavy digital grain that clouds detail. And, unfortunately, the boost to high-definition makes some of the more obvious digital special-effect placements stick out more than they probably should, though others -- including all the ones involving the monsters themselves -- still look spectacular and relatively seamless. The range of unique shades of green and the earthy dilapidated textures that dominate the film all look spectacular, even through a few compression blocks. Though there are a few marks against the overall HD appeal of the presentation, the attractiveness and appropriate nature in its connection to the film's visually-fluid tone compensate greatly.

But boy, the 7-channel DTS HD Master Audio track's certainly a winner. Every aural elements crammed into Gareth Edwards' film sounds exception; from the beautiful momentum-driven scoring to the splashing of water and thunder rolling, the range of surround channels spread outwards as wide as the travels captured in the film. The zipping of planes reaches from the rear channels to the front, while the handful of monster sequences front quite a few efforts out to capture room-rattling effects -- the crashing of a car, an explosion, and loudly-yelled voices. Mostly, however, it's a dialogue-focused picture with the music pulsing against the lower-frequency channel, and the clarity of Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able's banter hits an natural balance that's crisp but aware of its surroundings. In other words, this surround design's active and appropriately crisp when the journey requires them to be. Optional English and Spanish subs are available with the sole DTS HD Master Audio track

Special Features:

Audio Commentary with Gareth Edwards, Scoot McNairy, and Whitney Able:
You'll get a hefty dose of focused Filmmaking 101 stuff in the other supplements, so don't worry if this commentary's more jovial, lighthearted, and sparse with its context. I loved how Edwards and his actors aggressively point out their characters in the harrowing moments at the beginning of the film, and how they admit to being hungover before explaining why they changed the title from Far From Home. But there's a lot of unique, interesting insight in the mix as well, such as the authenticity of the Mexican family's activities outside their home (i.e. hanging their laundry on barbed wire), and who the girl is that's laying in Andrew's bed when Sam comes knocking on his door. Edwards has been instructed to point out the computer-generated elements from some higher-up, and he does so unabashedly and with a critical eye for his mistakes (wobbly fence), though it's pretty obvious he'd pinpoint this stuff anyway. The energy gets a bit low at times, but it's not a bad listen whatsoever -- and some of the revealed details make it worth the time.

Behind the Scenes of Monsters (1:09:15, HD AVC):
An in-depth feature that closes in on the full construction of Monsters, this piece follows the full conception of Gareth Edwards' film in a systematic but highly insightful fashion. Edwards essentially "gets things started" by explaining his SLR-esque camera rig before shooting, then dives into the specific locations where his film's composed. On-the-fly interviews with the small-in-number crew mingle with the direct behind-the-scenes footage, This isn't one of those video diaries that'll capture much in the way of troubles on-set; instead, Edwards and his crew lucidly explain what each location consists of, while cheerily poking fun at giving his actors a "tourist experience" so they'll give back to him later in the shoot. It shows how Edwards took on several scenes without much of a plan, as well as the general "get what we can" independent filmmaking essence. Some explanation falls on the timidity behind dressing up some of the secondary actors as militants, in fear that other unaware people might see them as actual militants in specific countries. Mostly, however, this hour-long stretch shows how the nuts-'n-bolts crew threw together an expansive, compelling science-fiction with somewhat "simple", mindfully-captured setups. A little long, but a neat watch in seeing how the director created something special from something very minimal.

Monsters: The Edit (21:31, HD AVC):
This feature shows how editor Colin Goudie ratchets through the digital dailies and rushes, and how Gareth Edwards' raw footage differs from that of other setup-by-setup pictures. It also covers how Edwards' writing can't really be classified as a "script", but more a patchwork of ideas handled as the filming process went on -- but how the idea, the characters, and the "emotional journey" were all outlined. The duo then dip into the editing process, the process of ADR dialogue around footage they've already got for added emphasis, and how they achieved some of the suspense specifically through well-placed snips and rearrangements here and there. Much like the lengthy making-of feature, it soberly takes us through their process without much in the way of panic moments or anything, while also discussing how the digital effects will split in with the locked shooting footage.

Visual Effects (34:56, HD AVC):
Continuing in a familiar tone to the editing feature, Goudie and Edwards explain the process in which they drop in the visual effects to the footage. It's explained how Edwards used to say that he'd agree to do directing gigs early in his career in exchange for also doing visual effects. He and his actors then discuss the inventiveness behind shooting the film without green-screens, and how he captures scenes specifically with the idea of splicing computer-generated effects into each one. Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able talk about how Edwards led them through those scenes, how he instructed them to look for monster carcasses, planes and helicopters when there's nothing for them to actually look at in the lush scenery. The piece also tacks in numerous full-scale pre-visualization shots to further emphasize this process, a few actually on the computers that the filmmakers are using.

Several Interviews and Q&A portions are also made available, though they start to become slightly redundant in comparison to the previous supplements. Gareth Edwards (44:16, HD AVC) offers some interesting tidbits about the casting, specifically how he aimed to cast a real couple as the two leads and how Whitney Able's photograph scared him due to her being "too attractive". He also talks about the evolution of the script from starting out with two backpackers, how Edwards attempted to make every decision as if he's making the most realistic monster movie ever, and what it'd be like to live in a world where we've grown accustomed to the presence of aliens and military vehicles in our everyday environment. Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (28:04, HD AVC) take an upbeat approach in explaining their appeal to the project, chattering about near-death experiences, spending nine weeks in the jungle, and the initial chunks of scripting and visual effects they were given to illustrate Edwards' vision, on top of some character elaboration and reflection on their experiences. As a nice addendum, Garrett Edwards New York Comic Con Discussion (5:03, HD AVC) also comes with the package.

Rounding things out are a generic, now thoroughly-redundant HDNet: A Look at Monsters (4:40, HD AVC) featurette that works better almost as an overlong trailer (which, unfortunately, no trailer's been included with this package). Also included are a small series of lengthy Deleted / Extended Scenes (20:07, HD AVC).

Final Thoughts:

Go in with the awareness that Monsters won't be persistent or aggressive with action-based exploits, and you'll discover Gareth Edwards' low-key, multi-layered suspense drama built around the presence of monsters -- and it's really good.

Shot for $500k and utilizing a shoestring crew, this mood-heavy "thriller" instead uses the omnipresence of extraterrestrial beings as an environmental driver, one that the central characters cope with throughout instead of confront head-on. Sturdy performances from Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able give the film a dramatic backbone that's quite appropriate for the film's aims, as it cleverly takes them on a challenging journey that relishes in the thematic intrigue behind transporting them through an "infected zone". With that in mind, its metaphorical context could be smoother, and it could still use a bit more palpable energy between dramatic character construction. Still, for a freshman feature, Edwards has accomplished something exceptional, a fresh look at the science-fiction medium as a climate for intriguing developments within instead of as a vigorous story driver. Magnet's Blu-ray release presents the film with stunningly reputable audiovisual merits, along with a terrific arrangement of features that include a down-tempo commentary, several interviews, and a lengthy video diary that glimpses directly into the indie filmmaking process. Highly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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