'Pacific Rim' Countdown: 'Monsters' and the Refreshing Take It Brings to the Kaiju Table

'Pacific Rim' Countdown: 'Monsters' and the Refreshing Take It Brings to the Kaiju Table

Jul 11, 2013

Of all the big movie genres Hollywood has utilized to show off its state-of-the-art special effects, the giant-monster picture has been the most woefully underrepresented. Hopefully that will change with the impending release of Guillermo del Toro's Kaiju-vs.-robot extravaganza Pacific Rim. In the buildup to that event, we'll look at some of the few English-language kaiju films we do have in an effort to ascertain how they live up to the genre and how they differ.

Previously: Godzilla, Cloverfield, King Kong

Of all the entries included so far on this brief exploration of Western kaiju films, Monsters probably represents the best, most exciting example of everything a kaiju film can be in the new millennium. As an attempt to illustrate what it would really feel like to live in a world attacked by giant monsters, it shares a great deal of DNA with Cloverfield. But while Cloverfield may excel when it comes to monster mayhem (and creature design), Monsters wins out in every other category. Kaiju conversations that omit this gem automatically render themselves suspect.

The supreme statement offered by Monsters is that giant-monster movies no longer belong solely to big studios with bottomless pockets. Gareth Edwards put the film together for under $500,000 dollars, shooting for over three weeks and doing all the effects work alone in his bedroom. With Monsters, the kaiju game suddenly becomes something of a meritocracy.

Such limitations meant Edwards could not rely on cinematic fireworks to sell his film. So he created a kaiju-stricken world and filmed that instead. A title card at the beginning of the film tells us that Monsters takes place 60 years after Earth's kaiju (they're actually big, squidlike aliens) problem began. As a result, this isn't a film about alarm or panic, but rather what normalcy looks like in a world where monsters walk among us.

Monsters teems with details that make rewatches particularly rewarding experiences. Edwards fills the screen with constant signs, both overt and subtle, which firmly establish its setting. The Godzilla series occasionally acknowledge continuity but typically only in terms of military response, i.e. "We tried that type of gun and it didn't work. Let's try this new gun next." Citizens know who Godzilla is (there's even a Godzilla theme park in Godzilla vs. Gigan), but there is no real examination of what the constant threat of destruction does to a society.

That examination is Monsters' whole purpose. We see it in the obviously metaphorical divide between monster-free America, and the monster-filled land south of its heavily walled border (a wall which we eventually discover has been breached by monsters). We see it economically, both in the poverty in which people live south of the wall and in the corruption of those who can get people across the border. We see it in the way one of our two main characters, Andrew, callously discusses how much money he could get from a photo of a child kaiju victim. And of course, we see it in the random but frequent destruction which riddles the land.

Because of its high quality, this kind of world building should all be very exciting for kaiju fans. Cloverfield does a good job of conveying the horrific immediacy of a monster attack, but Monsters takes place in a much more understandable and emotionally true place. And it actually takes the time to look around and let us understand what we see. It's a drama which does great work legitimizing one of the silliest subgenres out there.

Setting is wonderful, but it wouldn't matter without good characters to fill it. Monsters doesn't take the easy way out there, either. The story involves a photojournalist named Andrew who must escort his rich boss' daughter Samantha from dangerous "San Jose, Central America" to the safe confines of America. Their trip runs into several roadblocks when their passports are stolen and and a severe time crunch falls upon them. They find themselves unable to travel by traditional means, but if they don't get to American within a few days, they won't get another chance for six months.

So there's tension. But rather than lean on that, Edwards uses the opportunity to make a relationship drama which happens to use a war-torn disaster area as its backdrop. What's really special about Andrew and Samantha is that their inevitable romance is not as easy as you'd think. If not for their forced time together, it's unlikely they'd like each other at all. She is a bleeding-heart rich girl who is about to marry a man she doesn't love. He is an impatient opportunist who is trying to deal with the fact that he can't take part his young child's life. Andrew is also kind of a jerk. By the end of the film, he has warmed up a bit and she has grown maybe a bit more realistic. But their unification is more a coping mechanization than a romantic entanglement.

Surprisingly enough, the most assured on-screen romance in Monsters takes place between the monsters themselves. For all this talk of how little Monsters focuses on kaiju action, it features perhaps a bit more kaiju action than you'd expect. The film opens with a night-vision, found-footage look at American army personnel in battle with a giant roving squid. (We find out later that this is actually the end of the movie, and if you look very carefully, things do not look to have ended well for Samantha.) There aren't a lot of dynamics to this opening, but the found-footage aesthetic lends the scene a chilling tone, and the monster looks great. It was a brilliant move on Edwards' part to come swinging out of the gate with his creature design. It acts as a declaration that, yes, this is going to be a monster movie, and, no, it's not going to look like one of those Syfy MegaShark vs. AlphaGator catastrophes.

We are treated to two more main monster sequences, one where we see some squids take out a couple cars and the big finale, which somewhat famously lets us watch in awe as two kaiju have a romantic dance with each other, thus humanizing them the same way Monsters has humanized every other aspect of the kaiju genre. Put together, the three sequences more than give you your money's worth.

A persistant notion exists that kaiju fans only want to see buildings fall down and planes swatted from the sky. I can only speak for myself, but what I really want from these films is a sense of awe that our world could face creatures that literally dwarf us. Regardless of a film's narrative quality, if it can communicate a monster's size and our own insignificance by comparison, I will usually come away loving it. Monsters totally proves this point. It is not a film about destruction and fighting, though it has both of those things, it is an exercise in making the unreal cinematically tangible, and it does so almost exclusively by appealing to detail emotion.

This is its own great accomplishment, but it becomes doubly important upon realizing that Gareth Edwards is currently directing the first new Godzilla film in a decade and only the second English-language attempt ever at the character. Given all the things Edwards makes paramount in Monsters, the little things most kaiju filmmakers often don't care to highlight, it is hard to imagine the Godzilla property in more capable hands.


Next Week: Pacific Rim

Categories: Features, Countdown Column
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