Monsters (UK - BD RB)
Chris takes a look at the BD release of Gareth Edwards' low-budget film début
At some point in the near future a NASA deep-space probe crash lands in Mexico, bringing with it alien life forms that spread throughout the U.S.–Mexican border. This leads to the erection of a huge wall, establishing a quarantine zone encompassing the northern half of Mexico, with both the U.S. and Mexican military battling to contain the extra-terrestrial creatures therein. We are then introduced to Andrew, a young American photojournalist who has been hired to return his wealthy employer's daughter, Samantha, from San Jose in time for her impending wedding. However, when their passports are stolen the duo are forced to make their way home through the infected zone, a perilous journey made all the more dangerous when their armed escorts are attacked and killed by the alien creatures. Andrew and Sam must then make their way to the American boarder alone and on foot, all the while hoping to evade the ever-present 'monsters'.
Having watched Monsters a few times now I still struggle to categorise it. I guess I’d have to describe the film as an involving character study that spans numerous disparate genres. Tellingly one of the main complaints I've heard levelled against the film is the lack of the titular monsters themselves, and while it's true that their appearances are relatively few and far between Monsters really isn't a 'creature feature', and anyone who tells you otherwise is misrepresenting the picture. Although it arguably has something to say about alienation and even immigration, at its core Monsters is a road movie come love story that just happens to feature a fantastical element. It's more about the characters’ journey of self-discovery than fighting off an alien invasion, so you'll find more moments of quiet reflection than you will fire-fights. Whether the love experienced by the protagonists is true love or simply the result of two damaged, lonely people coming together in the face of adversity is, of course, open to debate. Either way, I really enjoyed the feature, more so on my second and third viewing. The organic dialogue really makes you feel as if you’re eavesdropping on private conversations, which in turn makes for an intimate viewing experience that keeps you interested. If by any chance you do get bored with the characters there’s always the beautiful cinematography to appreciate, which is all the more impressive when you consider that it was shot handheld. The CGI work might not be up to the standards of most effects pictures, but it is remarkably effective when you consider the relatively small budget and the fact that Gareth Edwards did the effects work himself. This in itself is a remarkable achievement and only increases my admiration for Edwards’ talents.
Monsters was shot using Sony's PMW-EX3 camera and is presented on here at its intended aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (1080/24p VC-1). Given the film's hand-held shooting style and relatively small production budget the image is actually surprisingly attractive, although those of you who dislike the digital look probably won't have a change of heart based on this presentation alone. With that said, it’s a great example of how digital tools are helping aspiring filmmakers realise their creative vision when it simply wouldn’t have been possible using more traditional methods. Even so, Avatar this isn’t, and there are a number of weaknesses inherent to the source. Firstly, detail is only average, even in the sort of close-up shots that you’d expect to be revealing. Matters are not helped by the contrast, which runs extremely hot throughout, often blowing out highlights and obscuring background detail. However, this looks to be intentional, so it’s a stylistic issue rather than a technical one. The decision to use natural light sources in the darker sequences makes for a murky, noisy image, but thankfully those scenes are fairly infrequent.
On the positive side the image is very warm, which is immensely helpful in creating the atmosphere necessary for a film of this nature. The daytime palette is awash with bright primaries, although some of the most attractive scenes are to be found when the blue skies give way to fiery orange of dawn. You can almost feel the heat of the jungle as the characters make their way across the infected zone, which further enhances the mood. The homemade visual effects (created by Edwards using Adobe After Effects) hold up well under close scrutiny in high-definition, but this is perhaps less surprising than you might think given that the film was always intended for theatrical release. I didn’t spot any particularly glaring digital issues other than a spot of posterisation likely inherent to source, and on the whole this is a perfectly good transfer of the source material. Just don’t expect it to ‘pop’ like a glossy big-budget event movie.
Monsters' audio is just as, if not more, important than the video. It's an incredibly atmospheric film that replies on its sound-design to set the mood, so I was hoping that the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track was up to the job. I needn't have worried, because although it's fairly restrained it handles the subtle nuances of the soundtrack perfectly. Although not as showy as many releases the surrounds deliver an almost constant stream of ambience, from passing traffic and military helicopters flying overhead, to the sounds of insects and birds in the infected zone. There’s also a fair amount of directionality, with vehicles transitioning from part of the soundstage to the other than the like. This surprised me given the relatively gentle nature of the surrounding for much of the runtime, but it was a pleasant surprise.
There aren’t too many scenes that call upon anything remotely resembling shock and awe on the scale of a modern blockbuster, but there are one or two moments where the track is allowed to cut loose. The climactic sequence aside, more memorable instances involved a crashed fighter jet surfacing in a river and a creature attack around two thirds of the way through, in which the monster’s footsteps and breathing are reassuringly rumbly. Jon Hopkins’ wonderfully understated is given free rein to float in and out of the film as necessary, often eclipsing the rest of the effects to set a specific tone. It’s very effective at enhancing the already dreamlike qualities of the piece. I’m a big fan of tracks that mange to impress without lots of special effects-driven set-pieces, so the audio gets an emphatic thumbs up from me.
Audio Commentary by Gareth Edwards, Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able: First up we have a commentary track from the director and his stars. The track is a fairly lively one, with a lot of information pertaining to the location shooting and the effects work. Edwards has a good rapport with the actors and he keeps the tone light throughout the commentary, although he does recount several hair-raising stories about the wilder parts of Costa Rica and Guatemala. It was here that I learned that McNairy and Able are a real-life married couple, along with other interesting bits of trivia.
Behind the Scenes (55:15 HD): What I thought was going to be a short puff piece actually turned out to be a pretty thorough look at the making of the film. We spend the majority of the runtime in the company of Gareth Edwards and stars Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, whether in the form of talking heads interviews or location footage. It’s actually more of a documentary than a featurette, as there are lengthy sequences where the camera just follows people around the set as they go about the business of shooting the film. It’s not your run-of-the-mill making of and is definitely worth a watch.
Editing Monsters (23:21 HD): This is another reasonably lengthy featurette that concentrates on the arduous task of editing one hundred hours of raw, unfocussed, improvised footage down to a ninety-four minute feature film. I'm not really up to speed with the world of editing, but Colin Goudie certainly seemed to have his work cut out for him (if you'll excuse the pun). Gouldie explains how he and Edwards first worked to bring the runtime down to four hours before further refining the cut, and how he was able to employ techniques such as jump cuts to accomplish this. I have to admit that I found this process quite fascinating.
Monsters VFX (28:46 HD): The third featurette is also very detailed, offering a genuinely interesting window into Gareth Edwards' visual effects world. It was amazing to see how much he accomplished in such a short space of time working on his own, and I really enjoyed some of the technical demonstrations. It's staggering how he was able to create such relatively polished effects given that he was working out of his own home (and bizarrely that includes the bath tub).
Introduction to Factory Farmed by Gareth Edwards (01:25 HD): As you probably guessed from the title, this piece features the director introducing his short film.
Factory Farmed (05:12 HD): Created for the 48-hour film challenge ostensibly to try out the new 35mm lens for his digital camera, Factory Farmed shows flashes of the outstanding visual effects work that would later find its way into Monsters. I wouldn't say that I enjoyed the short, largely because there's not much of a story to enjoy in a five-minute piece, but if nothing else it was interesting to see Edwards' progression from a short film to his first feature-length movie.
Trailer (01:27 SD): The theatrical trailer is included for the sake of completeness, although oddly it’s only in standard-definition. Having finally watched the trailer I can see why some people were disappointed after viewing the whole film, because the trailer sells it as something it really isn’t. Some of the quotes (A New Word of Terror, Slash Films) certainly bare no relation to the film I saw and nearly all of the action sequences are in the trailer.
Given that it was released after both Cloverfield and District 9 it's hard to ignore the inevitable comparisons, but Monsters is a different beast altogether (sorry, yet another bad pun). Sure all three films feature a hand-held, documentary shooting style, but whereas the other films were more about the conflict with the creatures Monsters focuses more on the human element. If you go into the film expecting a lot of action you're going to be sorely disappointed, but if you're willing to spend some time getting to know the characters and soaking up the atmosphere you will find the experience very rewarding. This Blu-ray release is just about as good a representation of the source material as you could reasonably ask for, and actually looks and sounds better than some films that cost many times its budget. However, the real star of the show actually turned out to be the bonus material, as it's both entertaining and informative (two things that I don't often say about the crap that usually shovelled onto today's releases). I've now seen the film three times and I grow to like it more with each viewing. If you're in the mood for something a bit different, or if you're an aspiring filmmaker looking for inspiration, you could do a lot worse than spending some time in the company of Gareth Edwards’ Monsters.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 12 years and over
Release Date: 11th April 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital Audio Descriptive 2.0 English
Extras: Audio Commentary, Featurettes, Short Film, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able
Genre: Drama, Romance and Sci-Fi
Length: 94 minutes
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