Saturday, December 11, 2010

Monsters directed & written by Gareth Edwards

Monsters is written & directed by Gareth Edwards

In fiction, exposition is almost always a crime. When a narrator or character must explain what is going on, it's usually a sign of a story's weakness. Genre fiction is rife with it, as are movies.

Here's my made-up example of how exposition can infect dialog:

JOHNNY: Hey, Ray, who's that beautiful girl staring back at me, the one with the come-hither smile? I've just been sprung from a 5-year bit in prison, and she's a real sight for my sore eyes!

RAY: Whoa, Johnny, I know you just got out after doing time for a crime you didn't commit, so you must be itching for some action, but that girl there is nothing but trouble. I know she's way better looking than any other woman in this bar, but don't let her long legs and perfect figure fool you. She's a monster.

JOHNNY: Aw, what do you mean, Ray? Don't go ruining this for me! Besides, Uncle Vinny, your boss who just happens to owe me big for not squealing after I got pinched for a robbery that you actually committed, told you to show me a good time on this, my first night out of prison, so why don't you just introduce me if you know who she is. I ain't been with a girl since your sister dumped me during the trial.

RAY: Easy, Johnny. I know I owe you, and Uncle Vinny does, too. And, believe me when I tell you that what happened between you and my sister is water under the bridge as far as I'm concerned, even though I wasn't too happy about it while you two were sneaking around together behind my back! But that girl there is the police commissioner's daughter. She may look like heaven in heels, but she is strictly off-limits. Forbidden fruit. You cross that line, and you'll upset the truce we got with the cops! Then you wouldn't be Uncle Vinny's golden boy no more.

JOHNNY: Okay, okay. Just get me another drink, then. At least do that. Even though you can't drink because you're a recovering alcoholic who has to go to weekly meetings, the least you can do is get me another drink.

You get my drift. So much scene-setting is crammed into my dialog that it sounds completely inauthentic, ruining the scene's chances for any sense of verisimilitude. Unless your aim is satirical (as in, for example, The Hudsucker Proxy or Big Trouble in Little China), this is not the kind of stuff you should be reading or watching (or writing, for that matter).

But exposition is also necessary, in order to give an audience their bearings. One of the most famous examples of exposition is the scrolling text at the beginning of Star Wars, a blatant narrative ploy that hasn't seemed to hurt the reputation of that particular franchise.

The nifty little movie, Monsters, also opens with some exposition, but, instead of the long scrolling paragraphs of Star Wars, Monsters gives us just a few lines: "Six years ago...NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A space probe was launched to collect samples but broke up during re-entry over Mexico. Soon after, new life forms began to appear and half the country was quarantined as an INFECTED ZONE. Today, the Mexican & U.S. military still struggle to contain the creatures..."

And we're off and running. The rest of the movie has little to no exposition, and large swaths of implication and circumstance are left dangling evocatively in the air like the tentacles of a...oh, never mind. I'm just saying that Monsters is a movie that doesn't feel the need to nail everything down. And, to my mind, it's better for it.

I've forgotten which artist wrote that mysteries are better embodied than solved, but the notion is apt in discussing the many ways in which Monsters is great. Maybe I got the idea from Archibald MacLeish's line that "a poem should not mean but be."

Despite the science-fictional nature of its premise, Monsters is actually a classic road movie wherein two near-opposites are forced to spend some time travelling together (through the aforementioned "INFECTED ZONE"), and, over the course of this journey, develop both an understanding and a relationship.

The understanding involves the state of the world they live in, which is radically different in ways made obvious by the opening exposition. However, it's also a world that has fascinating parallels to ours, giving Monsters a thematic depth that I won't spoil here. Suffice it to say that, no matter how topsy-turvy the world may get, economics & politics will still play their part.

The relationship that develops comes from the winning combination of two actors who inhabit their roles wholly. The two leads (Whitney Able & Scoot McNairy), who were apparently the only professional actors in the cast, play their roles naturalistically, as befits the documentary visual tone of the movie.

And none of their dialog is as hackneyed & expository as the crap I wrote above. Able & McNairy have what seem to be actual conversations, made up of situational riffs and pauses, with all the attendant hesitation and bursts of earnestness that comes of two people feeling each other out (a la the mumblecore movement). Their lines are not declaimed; they're overheard by the handheld cameras following them. And the burgeoning feeling that blossoms between these two, even though it follows along a tried-and-true progression, nevertheless feels authentic.

Indeed, it is this emotional authenticity that gives the movie's climax its punch, though the special-effects are themselves stunning and unexpectedly haunting. For all its success at being a character-driven drama, Monsters also succeeds in terms of its namesake genre. That is, the monsters in Monsters are truly monstrous, wreaking substantial havoc and destruction and death.

Much has been made of the way this movie was created, as writer-director Gareth Edwards used real locations, found objects, guerilla filmmaking tactics, improvised dialog with amateurs, and sparse-but-effective special-effects to fashion a film that is so different from others in its genre(s) that it constitutes a difference in kind. Given these circumstances and strictures, Monsters is a bonafide tour-de-force. And even without taking its making into account, this is still a wonderful movie.

I urge you to see it.

written & directed by Gareth Edwards
starring Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy

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