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'Monster' mash

Old skool movie, slick new FX.


'MONSTERS': Whitney Able stars.
  • 'MONSTERS': Whitney Able stars.

To paraphrase that great sage and eminent philosopher, Bugs Bunny: Here we are in the future, and all the clams we can eat! As a student of film, one of the things I love about it here in the Far Off Year of 2010 is that the digital video revolution has made it where just about anybody can make a movie. I'm not talking about home videos of your kids opening their Christmas presents. I'm talking full length, deep focus, high definition, with pro-grade titles, lighting and special effects — all for a fair bit less than you'd spend on a good used Honda Accord.

Back in the days of film — as in, the stuff that's collected in spools— making an independent movie was either an exercise in begging or going into deep credit card debt. No more. Not really.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. And this week's proof is the very well-done indie sci-fi flick "Monsters," by director Gareth Edwards. In the old days — the days of practical effects, model space ships and rubber monster suits — low-budget science fiction movies were prone to be either stark and spare (George Lucas' "THX 1138") or complete camp (Ed Wood's "Plan 9 From Outer Space"). Those days are over. "Monsters," shot by a small crew with a very limited budget, is the new news: a sci-fi movie by Hollywood outsiders that looks just as good as the $175 million summertime blockbusters.

Here's the concept: Six years before the opening of the film, a space probe bringing back samples of newly-discovered alien life forms from Europa (a moon of Jupiter) broke apart over northern Mexico, scattering extraterrestrial spores over thousands of square miles. The creatures that sprang from that mishap are horrors: 300-foot-high, bio-luminescent, tentacle waving monsters that look something like vast octopi that have given up the briny deep for a go at the land.

By the time we enter the fray, the creatures have multiplied exponentially, forcing the construction of a 500-foot wall on the U.S./Mexico border and leaving everything for 300 miles south of Texas a bombed-out, quarantined war zone where the monsters and the U.S. military routinely do battle. When the creatures are attacked, they tend to gang up and get very nasty, as evidenced by the ruined cities seen throughout the film.

Enter stage left journalist Andrew Caulder (played by the epically-named Scoot McNairy), who is trying to make his big break into the world of war photography by entering the quarantine zone from the south and snapping shots of Army/monster rumbles.

After rushing to a city that was recently attacked by a creature, he gets a call from the publisher of the paper he works for and a directive: Find a way to get the publisher's comely, do-gooder daughter Samantha (Witney Able) out of the war zone before the military expands the quarantine and strands her there. After their passports are stolen, which makes them miss the last boat out, Caulder and Sam are forced to hire armed men to help them make the dangerous trek across the red zone back to America.

Given how good it looks, the most surprising thing about "Monsters" is how it was shot: in Mexico, with a crew of two, using off-the-shelf cameras and mostly locals (many of whom apparently weren't informed they were going to be in a movie) as extras. There was a rudimentary script, but the vast majority of the lines in the film were ad-libbed by Able and McNairy, which leads to some real chemistry.

On top of that, the special effects are really something special, particularly when you consider that every quarantine sign, every painted billboard advertising gasmasks, every tank, every jet, every helicopter, every Navy ship, every flash of machine gun fire and every 300-foot monster with flailing tentacles was added digitally in post-production. It all looks (on my computer screen where I watched the screener, anyway) photorealistic, with the real blending seamlessly into the fake. It's enough to make you wonder if we'll even need actors in another 20 years.

The best thing about "Monsters" might be the fact that even though Edwards and his team of effects elves could have easily put one of the creatures into every scene, he instead takes the Spielberg/"Jaws" route and shows a lot of restraint (there's even a scene on a river which, if I'm not mistaken, is an homage to Spielberg's big fish movie). As in "Jaws," that technique builds quite a bit of tension over the course of the film, with the monsters always the Black Unknown lurking in the darkness and jungle deep.

While that manages to make the character-building scenes between McNairy and Able feel a bit like stuff you might fast-forward through if you had a remote in your hand, "Monsters" is still worth the price of a ticket. With an old-school monster-movie plot, great special effects and some interesting things to say about mankind's meddling in the natural world, it's a good time at the movies.

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