Monday, July 25, 2011

Whither tentacle monsters

Can I just ask, "Why tentacles?" Of all the scary appendages that things from outer space might have -- lobster claws, corkscrews or perhaps vicious, poison-tipped umbrellas. But no, somehow a consensus has formed around tentacles as the giant alien's limb of choice and I guess we're stuck with it.

Two relatively low-profile films released in 2010 illustrate disparate approaches to making tentacle monster movies. (This is limited to mainstream films; there is a whole shadowy world of tentacle monsters, originating in Japan that I have no intention of getting into.) One follows a classical Hollywood horror-movie template. Second- and third-tier actors placed in a limited number of settings with a simple melodramatic frame shaped like a funnel, so that a small group of characters becomes an even smaller group, usually with only the romantic couple remaining.

Skyline (2010) was directed by a special-effects supervisor and it looks it. In fact, only the CGI portions demonstrate any real passion from any of the participants. In the actors' defense, it can't be easy to spend 18 or 20 days on a confined stage (representing the terrace apartment which is the only location of the film) swathed in green fabric, pretending to be terrorized by what the director tells you is going to be there. I can't imagine how one could sustain interest in such a task unless the paycheck was hefty, and this paycheck couldn't have been. Here's a typical excerpt:

This is best Skyline has to offer. There are no characters, no situations, no paradox, metaphor or allegory to contemplate. Just a lot of animation and (SLAM!) cues from the soundtrack. The characters' only choices are whether to run toward or away from the danger. Roger Corman must have been beaming with recognition.

Another approach is the ultra-low budget Monsters (2010). [Couldn't anyone have been talked out of releasing a low-budget film with such a generic title? It sounds like a Wayans Brothers project that couldn't even muster the energy to come up with a silly name.] Again, writer-director Gareth Edwards is a special-effects specialist. Evidently (and this is a mixture of published statements and surmise), principal photography with the actors cost about $15,000, as they wandered around one side or the other of the Mexican border pretending to elude some scary tentacle monsters which had been sort of hanging around for months (shades of District 9, of which the makers of Monsters say they were unaware at the time of shooting). Then the film spent a year or so in post-production, to the tune of about $500,000 during which Mr. Edwards made the monsters on his home computer. I could have some of that wrong, but that's the general outline.

Problem is, the thin and semi-improvised story involving the two principals is alternately unengaging and borrowed goods, a sort-of It Happened One Night with space aliens. Despite their skill and professionalism, their lack of charm or charisma sends the movie toward Cassavetes-sweaty-actor-laboriously-improvising-Land, which is a strangle place for a monster movie to dwell. Mr. Edwards would have been well advised to engage an actual writer and/or genuinely skilled improvisers to create an absorbing foreground for the big tentacle creatures.

Monsters does have a much-remarked-upon subtext about immigration which the creators claim was unintended (and I believe them). The monsters only make fleeting appearances in the film, and that's not just a problem because there aren't enough scare or shock sequences. (There aren't any after the beginning of the film. Thereafter, the monsters become languid to the point of being downright sluggish.) It's that the filler has no intrinsic interest.

Cloverfield had ample thrills and chills well distributed through its approximately 75 minutes. District 9 had many interesting story threads and themes about the use of security, terrorism, racism, genetic experimentation and what-have-you. It could have retained interest even if it had half the CGI material that it does. (And District 9's CGI was extraordinarily convincing.) But Monsters doesn't appear to have an idea other than to mark time until another pedestrian animation sequence.

Incidentally, the question came up in connection with Avatar and it's becoming more and more pertinent as the Transformers aesthetic permeates down to lowbudget filmmaking like these films represent. Namely -- what is the difference -aesthetically- between a digital effects driven film and an out-and-out animated film. When the effects are not a supporting element but the raison d'etre for the entire undertaking, with the actors and the script in (feeble) support, aren't we just watching Saturday morning cartoons with some cheesy actors pasted in to stretch the budget?

My rhetoric here is probably harsher than the way I feel about these films. Monsters was at least trying something novel. Skyline was simply a potboiler, and you will probably see its clones on the Syfy Channel before long, if they're not already there. But the good news is that if you have Netflix streaming, you can check my opinion against your own, as both these films are available there at the moment.

And next time you order calamari -- watch out!

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