Skip itIn a gutsy venture into the realm of skinflint science fiction writer/director/cinematographer/penny pincher Gareth Edwards stretches every thread of a shoestring budget to try to trick audiences into believing they’re watching a “big” movie.

The tale of photographer Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and his boss’ daughter Sam’s (Whitney Able) dangerous trek to America at a time in which huge sections of Mexico and the US have been contaminated by gigantic octopus-like aliens is a tough job at the best of times, but especially when you’ve got to pull it off for $500k, which is nix in the movie biz.

While the two lead characters slowly connect Edwards craftily fosters a feeling that something huge is happening around them. He repeatedly uses simple storytelling sleights like signs that say CONTAMINATED and glimpses of blurry news footage of aliens shown on tiny TV sets with crappy reception.

We rarely get a glimpse of the aliens – more like gigantic calamari – but we convincingly feel their presence linger around the edges of the story. This is largely thanks to the skill of the actors, who make their dramas feel believable and their characters real. And – given their limited emotional range and precious little in the way of character arc – they are also real in the sense that they’re really uninteresting.

Monster is a spectacular pretender: all bark and no bite, all hat and no cowboy, the cinematic equivalent of mutton dressed as lamb. And that’s kind of the point.

The special effects are crappy but miraculously feel plausible because of their context. The film may be slow and middling but its unquestionable realism makes the SFX a great deal more substantial, a good reminder that in so far as special effects are concerned the devil is not necessarily in the detail but in mood, ambience, character and setting. The heart of a SCI-FI salad is much more important than the drizzles of effects on top.

Often in life humans beings are not where the action is. We don’t see the falling tree or the collapsing building or the explosion or the gun fight. Or in this case, the giant octopi. True(er) to life, the characters in Monster are very rarely where the “money shots” are. They’re before and often way after, surveying the wreckage. It’s hard to believe this came from narrative innovation. It came from a lack of dosh.

Andrew and Sam are characters we’ve seen countless times before and the plot’s make-it-up-as-you-go mantra leads to a frustrating experience. The storyline is so vacuous it becomes borderline infuriating; you keep waiting for the characters to do something interesting. And you wait and wait.

Kudos to Edwards for making a small movie feel like a big one. On a conceptual level, Monsters is great. Moment by moment, it’s more than a little lacking.

Monsters’ Australian theatrical release date: November 25, 2010.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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