We took students as part of the film course to watch Monsters at an afternoon screening. The reaction was somewhat split amongst the students. Some agreed with much of the critical praise heaped upon the film by magazines like Empire and Sight and Sound whilst others were slightly more sceptical about what they referred to as the ‘slow’ pace of the narrative. Monsters is British director Gareth Edwards debut feature and his background as a visual effects creator at the BBC has certainly helped to get around the problem of making a science fiction film without resorting to an expensive budget. Shot on a bargain basement budget of just £300,000, Monsters is a real hybrid of a film and whilst the marketing has deliberately over emphasised the science fiction aspects as a ploy to lure in the punters, the incorporation of elements from the road movie, horror genre, disaster film, the monster movie and post apocalyptic sub genre makes this one difficult to categorise and altogether more interesting in terms of genre fluidity. It does in many respects blur the boundaries between the road movie and science fiction in particular.
Whilst some of the critics have might over praised Monsters, I think given the remarkable context in which the film was made then it seems more reasonable as the director, a virtual one man crew, manages to achieve some great results with very little resources. Budget limitations seem to work in the favour of film makers as the degree of creativity is stronger; ideas can grow organically out of the environment and landscape which is what largely seems to happen with the unhurried unfolding of the narrative. Perhaps then it might be justified to position Monsters as part of the ‘slow cinema’ phenomenon whilst the dirty dystopian visual aesthetic recalls recent science fiction films such as Children of Men, Cloverfield and District 9. In many ways, Gareth Edward’s pared down approach to making a genre film may also be viewed as part of the independent and art film doctrine involving improvisation, a low budget, relatively unknown leads, an elliptical narrative and confounding genre expectations. However, Edward’s influences are largely mainstream Hollywood cinema including most importantly the science fiction work of Steven Spielberg.
The production outfit behind Monsters is the UK based Vertigo Films which was founded in 2002 by Allan Niblo, James Richardson, Nick Love, Rupert Preston and Rob Morgan. Director Nick Love has forged somewhat of a dubious critical reputation having made films such as The Football Factory, The Business and Outlaw – a kind of tabloid cinema which all star British actor Danny Dyer. Vertigo Films is committed to producing four films and distributing four films each year and since 2002 they have notched up some interesting, well received British films. Vertigo Films seems to be working as an indigenous film production company and the faith they have shown in Gareth Edwards certainly seems positive and welcoming to other British film makers seeking financing.
Film critic and academic Mark Kermode interviewed Gareth Edwards for a section in The Culture Show, reiterating the staggering truth that he created most of the visual effects using Adobe Photoshop and After Effects in the confines of his apartment. Interestingly one of the students after the screening referred to the main creature in the film as a merely a ‘Photoshop Squid’. Nevertheless, a film like Monsters certainly seems to support the claim that with emergence of new media technologies including relatively inexpensive editing software and HD video cameras we are finally seeing the democratisation of the film making process. In today’s instantaneous culture of film consumption in which it is no longer the aim of many mainstream Hollywood film makers to envelop the spectator in the experience and take time to gaze introspectively, perhaps slow actually equates to something serious and legitimate as is the case with Monsters. If we are to label Monsters as science fiction then as a genre it continues to offer film makers the ideal vehicle for exploring wider social and political anxieties whilst also offering allegories on the state of contemporary society. By situating the film in the territory of the US-Mexican border and by holding the Americans responsible for creating the infected zone, the film also indirectly explores the relations between America and Mexico in terms of borders, migration and identity.