Breeding Monsters

Edwards says his goal was to create "the world's most realistic monster movie." What he ended up with makes me wonder if what's killing Hollywood is having too much.

November 19th, 2010

Much of the buzz surrounding Gareth Edwards' film Monsters revolves around the reported $15,000 production budget. With a prosumer HD camera and a sound guy, Edwards followed his two principal actors through Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico in a textbook feat of guerilla filmmaking, then brought the edited footage home to add special effects, a workflow which resulted in a low budget movie with a big budget feel. Knowing none of this, I saw a preview while trolling through a series of unappealing OnDemand options and was immediately captivated by the film's look. A giant squid-like tentacled monster is revealed in shadow above a brightly lit Texas gas station—and the effect is beautiful. The moment is quiet, apart from the rumble of thunder, and I swear I could smell the coming storm.

It wasn't until the next day that I discovered that the production budget for Monsters wouldn't quite cover the cost of a new Volkswagen Jetta ($15,995, in case you're wondering). That got me thinking.

Unlike so many low-budget movies, this one doesn't look the part. The cinematography is good, even at times rather glorious, and the performances feel anything but cut rate. Even the extras, some of them apparently drafted on the spot, never come off as anything less than authentic. Edwards says his goal was to create "the world's most realistic monster movie." What he ended up with is a heart of darkness journey into the existential landscape, observed with a light, convincing touch.

The lesson we could draw from this is that these days all it takes to beat Hollywood at its own game is a trip to Best Buy and some space on your credit card. In interviews, Edwards himself plays up this angle, emphasizing how far consumer technology has come in closing the gap. But possession of an HD camera and a laptop running Adobe After Effects does not a storyteller make, and Monsters succeeds on the strength not of its effects but of its story. If Monsters surpasses the constraints of budget, it flouts genre constraints, too.

The premise is simple. Six years after a space probe crashes in Mexico, scattering extraterrestrial samples that produce giant space squids, the United States is hedged off from the Infected Zone by a massive wall. (Get it? A wall to keep out the aliens?) A photojournalist in Central America trying to snap a live squid in action is given the thankless task of shepherding his employer's wayward daughter back to the States. They travel to the coast, hoping to get her on a boat home, but when the last ship sails without her, there's no choice but to hire coyotes to smuggle the pair through the Infected Zone and over the wall. The drama centres on the journey, and the relationship between the two characters, while the monsters are a fact of life, only grabbing the focus when they lumber into view. The scares, when they come, are more authentic for being unaccompanied by the usual monster-movie pomp.

For formula fiends, a movie like Monsters doesn't supply the necessary fix. Stories that critics laud for transcending genre are often the ones that frustrate a genre's hardcore fans most. While Monsters has received a lot of praise, there have been complaints, too. The journey-story that makes the monster plot interesting for general audiences gives the squids less screen time than they would get in a blockbuster. No running victims are snatched up by tentacles and squeezed to pulp. In fact, there's a general lack of running, screaming, and whimpering in the film. The closest encounter with the aliens goes very differently than you might expect. It's as if no one supplied Edwards with the list of tricks for inducing knee-jerk adrenaline rushes. If you need those rushes, be aware. For me, it's precisely the lack of gimmicks that makes the monster moments work.

What fascinates me, too, is that Edwards didn't set out to transcend or subvert the genre. Arguably, his approach to story takes the monster movie more seriously than the big budget blockbusters do, not less. A commercial thrill-ride, satisfying as it might be, doesn't capture the essential reality of the imagined scenario. It wouldn't really be like that. The strength of Monsters, like so many top-drawer genre films, is that it gives a convincing glimpse of what the myth might be like if it came true.

It's enough to make me wonder if what's killing Hollywood is having too much.

When it comes to creativity, we're accustomed to thinking of constraint as a bad thing. It's shocking to think that a $15,000 movie can be as good as a $150 million movie, because more resources mean more freedom. And freedom drives creativity. Where freedom is stifled—whether by law or social convention or the realities of the marketplace—culture is stifled along with it. If a cheap film can be as good as an expensive one, if a story that must be told within tight constraints is as rich (or richer) than one with the freedom to make use of multiple cameras, sets, and crews, then maybe freedom defined this way isn't all it's cracked up to be. Maybe there's something to be said for the creative value of constraint.

"Freedom is of no use," Flannery O'Connor wrote in Mystery and Manners, "without taste and without the ordinary competence to follow the particular laws of what we have been given to do." What Edwards lacked in budgetary freedom, he made up for not just with consumer technology, but with creative storytelling. Knowing what he had to work with, it's easy to re-watch Monsters and see how certain choices—how and where to film, what to show and what to imply—were suggested and perhaps even dictated by the tight budget. This makes the film more impressive, not less. What he may have lacked in freedom, he made up for with taste and extraordinary competence.

Artists of every sort work with all kinds of constraint. And it's not uncommon in moments of frustration to imagine what you would do if only those limits could be removed. Monsters suggests it might be better sometimes to embrace the limits, or at least to think differently about what they mean. Constraints might stir the creativity that too much freedom stifles.

Topics: Arts
 

J. Mark Bertrand is the author of three novels—Back on Murder, Pattern of Wounds, and Nothing to Hide—Bertrand has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. His non-fiction book Rethinking Worldview is used in several university and seminary courses, and his work has appeared in print or online at ByFaith, Comment, Books & Culture, and First Things. He writes about the design and production of Bibles at the popular blog BibleDesignBlog.com.

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