Examining Monsters

The vast majority of Hollywood films have a massive budget to play with, but occasionally a few gain popularity with only a small pot of cash to play with. Without major stars, fancy effects or a reputation of the previous instalment to build on, these can be a very hard sell so rarely achieve mainstream release. Monsters is one that did and Exam did not and I shall now compare and contrast these two very different films.

Monsters had a budget of $15 million, which may sound like a lot but isn’t when considered in comparison to other films shown in cinemas. Most of this went on post production it seems, as there are only two credited actors and no script. Gareth Edwards, a visual effects artist, pitched a high concept idea of setting a story in a world where the invasion had happened and monsters were now normal. The studio recommended he watch another low budget film and he liked the lead actor so much, he chose to cast him and his then girlfriend, now wife, in his film. The low budget meant that no studios could be booked for high specials effects shots and real world locations were going to be used, many before getting permission for doing so. This lead to an improv style, where the director gave a lose paragraph of what he wanted from the scene to the two actors and the people who were there at the time were cast as extras, some even having important plot dialogue. This lead to a hundred hours of distinct footage, not just retakes, which was then cut to a ninety minute feature.

The plot is a simple one, a reporter is asked by his boss to escort his daughter home, which requires them crossing the infected zone, an area of America inhabited by the supersized aliens. It covers many similar issues to District 9, but in a road movie setting. The relationship between the two leads is the focus as opposed to the world around them, which is a shame since neither of them are great actors. They would probably have been able to cope with a script really well, but as inexperienced as they are, they’re ability to improvise is not great. They can both play their roles well when not required to speak, but all the dialogue is clunky and uninspired. As for the general story, this is also a letdown. Despite all that was removed in the cutting room floor, this still feels like it drags out too far. The quote on the DVD cover calls it action packed and this is quite possibly the most inaccurate description of the film anyone could ever give. It’s a slow moving, thoughtful film that tries to be thought provoking but is really just empty, leaving a blank canvas for your own thoughts to fill. At the end there is a scene with the aliens where our thoughts of them as monsters are changed, as they look calm, peaceful and even beautiful. The people however, never get that moment and the feeling I was left with was that we should have seen more of the world, not the tiny troubles of these fairly inconsequential characters.

Exam is an altogether different film. This, like Monsters, was produced on a tight budget, though a tenth of that above, and at festivals was met with critical acclaim. This however, had a script and an excellent one at that. Like Monsters, it’s a high concept sci-fi and Exam wins outright for originality. Set in a period only defined as “soon” where jobs are scarce, interviews become rather more inventive and testing. This centres around a ninety minute exam wherein there is one question, but on turning the paper over, they see nothing there. Without talking to the invigilators, the candidates must work out the answer and show they are the best.

The cast consists of ten actors, all with some experience but none considered a star. When given lines to read however and a clearly defined character, they all perform well. This is essential for this film, as a psychological thriller set in one single room relies on characters being subtly readable but not giving everything away. I think the balance here is well achieved and just watching the mind games is fun. One of the few problems I have with this film though was the marketing. I came close to not watching it as is was sold as a horror more than a thriller, with bloody imagery and a quote “The apprentice goes to hell” giving a false impression. This film does have dark moments, but for the most part it’s a good thought experiment and poses a lot of deep questions.

Another reason I liked this film, and want to recommend it over Monsters, is that the film-maker is almost certainly Christian and trying to do a similar thing to myself. His logo (a cross between a crucifix and a vertical union jack (no pun intended, honest)) suggests as much and while Exam isn’t about Jesus, it does have a message for those who can see it.  I would ask that those who think a film like this would genuinely interest them that they buy it, as I guarantee you will not be disappointed. If you are, I will personally refund you, how’s that for a promise? Give it a try, and I assure you, I’m not on commission.

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