by David Cornelius
Of course “Cloverfield” did not escape the watchful eye of The Asylum, that infamous gang of moviemakers who churn out a new direct-to-video “mockbuster” rip-off every month; the idea of filming an entire monster movie with cheap camcorders must’ve been a blessing to the budget-constricted studio.And so we get “Monster,” which, like “Cloverfield,” purports to be home video footage discovered in the aftermath of a monster attack. What’s curious about “Monster” is how far it takes this charade - the opening titles give credit not to director Eric Forsberg or writers David Michael Latt (who also edited) and Erik Estenberg, but to Sarah Lynch and Erin Sullivan, who star in the film as themselves, or, at least, characters with the same names. The filmmakers also go extra low-tech, less out of budget necessity and more for realism: using the in-camera microphone for many early scenes, these opening shots do indeed feel like found footage, boring home movies taken by genuine people. Gone is the sheen of a big studio production posing as something small.
For quite a while, it works. Lynch and Sullivan, playing sisters who travel to Tokyo to shoot a documentary on global warming, have a solid rapport, and their charisma combined with the movie’s on-the-cheap look helps the concept click. But it’s only a temporary fix; the early scenes are vibrant and fun, but then the rest of the movie steps in and ruins everything.
For starters, the film asks us to be very stupid, both about its characters and its reality. Sarah is passed off as a professional filmmaker, yet her documentary is being shot on the same cheap camera she’s using for her home movies, and she’s unconcerned that her sister, an amateur camera operator, isn’t getting a single usable shot. Worse, Sarah’s interview questions are dopey and shallow, not to be taken seriously.
Later, when Sarah takes the camera after the creature demolishes the city, this journalist with an eye for detail doesn’t seem interested in actually filming the destroyed skyline. (Instead, she wants to film her sister in constant close-up.) When Erin begins to beg Sarah to actually film the city, we join in, wondering not only why we don’t get to see the destruction, but why Sarah shows no curiosity about it. Of course, we know why they don’t show it - the filmmakers couldn’t afford to linger on complicated special effects, so we only get teeny glimpses.
But at least in this scene, they tried to paint a somewhat believable Tokyo-in-ruins picture. In other scenes, keep an eye on the backgrounds; you’ll snicker at the idea of a mass chaos in which most citizens are gently walking about, doing shopping, happily chatting, going to work. Forsberg doesn’t try to disguise the city backdrops at all, hoping, perhaps, that we just won’t notice. (Other scenes are similarly ruined when the sisters, both lamenting their fate in a deserted city, have their dialogue interrupted by the sounds of passing cars.)
Other portions of the screenplay assume an ignorance on the audience’s part. Unlike “Cloverfield,” which takes place on an unspecified date, “Monster” takes a direct cue from that movie’s title-less trailer, claiming that the entire action took place between 1-17-03 and 1-18-03. We’re told from the top that this was the date of a massive earthquake in the city, which sounds neat, until you realize that there was no earthquake on either day in Tokyo. In comparison, the fact that YouTube keeps getting mentioned despite being three years away from invention seems less of an issue.
But this brings up an important storytelling question: why spread the action over two looooong days and nights? Instead of presenting a tight thriller, the filmmakers let their story ramble as aimlessly as its characters, who spend the entire movie strolling around Tokyo, talking to each other, wondering what to do next, never quite finding the embassy they say they’re looking for. There is very little focus on the monster attack itself (we only see two large tentacles, nothing more), and the sisters find themselves in an endless loop of whining about each other’s choices, crying about survival issues, and walking around portions of the city the filmmakers could pass as abandoned.
Sure, they run into other survivors now and then, and there’s even one mildly decent action scene very late in the picture, but for the most part, “Monster” is just two sisters walking for two days. There’s no excitement, no tension, no concern. Just walking and whining, walking and whining.
Also of concern is Latt’s insistence in spicing up the thing via editing trickery. Throughout the entire film, we’re subjected to random cuts (often just as things are about to finally get interesting) and a parade of effects work that’s meant to recreate the look of damaged video. Except Latt doesn’t show any restraint for these effects, and the movie becomes visually unpleasant after only a few minutes. It’s not shaky-cam that does this movie in, it’s all the useless digital pixilation and audio warping.Well, that and the story that doesn’t go anywhere. And as a studio using limited resources to compete with the big blockbusters they hope to emulate, story should be The Asylum’s best weapon. It seldom is, and it certainly isn’t here. A fine start does not help “Monster” stay afloat, and the movie ends as just another stinky little rip-off.
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originally posted: 02/07/08 16:53:46