If you want to make your giant monster movie more of a character study, more power to you. Goodness knows we’ve had enough of these things that were all about the effects. But then the pressure’s on to create some truly captivating characters.
Monsters fails in that regard, and as such fails overall (even though the effects are pretty slick). Writer-director Gareth Edwards spends most of his time on the angst-ridden back stories and developing relationship of its two leads: Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist on assignment in Mexico; and Samantha (Whitney Able), an American vacationing there. He ends up escorting her through the “infected zone,” where a NASA probe crashed a few years earlier. Now, it’s a massive quarantined area running along the border of Mexico and the United States.
Edwards has great instincts. I like how he uses milieu for suspense, emphasizing the destruction that has taken place in this infected zone over the monsters that caused it. And there’s a shot of a giant wall erected between the United States and Mexico that’s fantastic, like a modern-day variation on the fence that was meant to contain King Kong.
What we didn’t need – especially considering the immigration debate that was taking place at the time of the movie’s release – was Samantha none-too-subtly observing, “It’s different looking at America from the outside.” In fact, we didn’t need Samantha. Given paint-by-numbers relationship issues, which Able doesn’t even color correctly, she’s a character that never justifies her considerable screen time. The same could be said of McNairy’s Andrew. He also comes pre-packaged with personal drama – he’s an absentee dad – but mostly Andrew comes off as the most inept world-traveling photojournalist you’ve ever seen (he gets their passports stolen and is repeatedly ripped off by guides). When Edwards manages a fairly elegant monster set piece in the finale and Andrew and Samantha come away unscathed, we should be relieved. I’ll confess, I was disappointed.