The title of this post might suggest that I am using Guillermo del Toro’s cinematic klaxon as a jumping off point from which to discuss movie monsters in general but actually I am just referring to one other film.
The thing is you see, that all the while I was watching del Toro’s homage to Japanese Kaiju movies, I was reminded of another flick that had done the same thing so much better a couple of years ago. So if you are thinking of watching the $190 million blockbuster Pacific Rim (out for purchase and rental now) my advice would be don’t. Catch what director Gareth Edwards put together for $500,000 instead. See Monsters.
The two films have fundamentally the same premise. Giant, animalistic creatures from another world found their way to Earth several years ago and have been stomping around ever since. Humans have just had to find a way to deal with it. The weaker film is totally preoccupied with the resultant carnage but the other is more worried about the people in the middle.
I’d not seen Pacific Rim at the cinema as I thought it would just be a lot of of cliched heroics and weak humour punctuated by lengthy scenes of monolithic monsters and titanic robots fighting smacking each other around. It turns out I was totally right but as a download it just about kept me entertained during a couple of commutes. It is one of the first films to harness the simmering and unpredictable power Idris Elba exudes on TV but other than that there is nothing here of any note. Sure the design is passingly interesting but this is a film from Guillermo del Toro, the creative visionary who gave us Pan’s Labyrinth, excuse me for expecting something more. There is the tiniest guillermoment fifty minutes in as a small girl, one red shoe missing, stands beneath a mythical horned leviathan but it passes pretty quickly and we’re back to bland and noisy.
Monsters on the other hand is excellent. It concentrates on two ordinary people who would be incidental characters in any Hollywood creature feature, if they appeared at all. They are twenty times more interesting than anyone in Pacific Rim though. We can relate to these two because they are normal, a lot like us. As a result we care about their journey and their relationship, which is real and beautifully engaging. He is Scoot McNairy, who was a real stand out in last year’s Argo, and she is Whitney Able. The two actors are a real life couple and have a understated chemistry you just can’t buy, no matter the size of your casting budget.
The monsters themselves mostly appear in the background or on glimpsed TV screens but that just makes the sense of anticipation and threat all the more heightened. This is a director who knows to hold off on the big reveal like they used to in the old days, in a time before we got photo realistic dinosaurs. This isn’t to say these behemoths look dated though, it is impressive what you can do these days with a home computer and commercially available SFX software.
Monsters only gives us minimal information on the origins and science of its creatures because it knows that stuff is all irrelevant. Too many films have been crushed under the weight of their own mythology. We certainly don’t need a detailed description of the monsters motivations, societal structure and genetic lineage like that given by a certain other creature feature on my mind right now. It isn’t important what they are, they are just monsters as the title suggests so we are spared any lengthy periods of exposition. All we know is that a Jupiter probe returning with samples of alien life broke up in atmosphere. It was humanity who inadvertently brought the destruction down on themselves which is also more poetic than just another alien invasion.
Maybe the true beast is the budget. Perhaps it is just too much to expect a million dollar monster movie to prioritise character over spectacle. If Guillermo couldn’t get the balance right maybe no one can. Maybe Gareth Edwards couldn’t have done any better. Well, as it happens, that question will be answered as, on the back of Monsters, Edwards has been given $160 million to make a new Godzilla movie. I think he’ll manage it.
Are these ones for the kids?
Both of these movies are a 12A with fairly standard levels of violence for that certificate. The choice then becomes one of sensibility not sensitivity.