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Monsters from the Id
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by David Cornelius

"It's here already! You're next!"
2 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST FILM FESTIVAL: “Monsters from the Id” would make a good DVD bonus feature. There’s so much time spent showing clips from “October Sky” that for a while I forgot I was watching a documentary about 1950s sci-fi movies; was this instead a Special Edition featurette on Homer Hickam’s young life?

And that’s the problem with “Monsters” - there's so little focus to any of it that the end of the movie forgets what the beginning of the movie set out to say. First-time director Dave Gargani might as well have called his movie “Here Are a Bunch of Interviews I Made and Clips I Found, and I’ll Get Around to My Main Point Eventually.”

The film begins as a scattershot discussion of various 50s genre classics, with experts providing the talking points. “The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” was, like “Godzilla” after it, a metaphor for the A-bomb. “Invasion of the Boy Snatchers” wasn’t so much an anti-Commie rant but a parable about the fear of change. And so on. Some of these ideas (like the “Body Snatchers” bit) offer new, interesting points of view on established favorites, which is a nice change of pace (there’s only so much Red Scare stuff you can say about these films). When not berating us with such throwaway moments as random film clip montages set to headache-inducing techno bass beats, “Monsters” has a few clever things to say.

It takes too long, however, to reach its ultimate statement: that the “romantic period” of sci-fi (rather crudely defined as the timeline between the destruction of Hiroshima and the assassination of JFK) is to thank for the public interest in space travel. Movies “normalized” Americans’ view of scientists, influencing youngsters to dream of growing up to be rocket engineers. Homer Hickam, whose “Rocket Boys” memoir was adapted on film as 1999’s “October Sky,” is one of the interviewees who talk of how Hollywood was every bit the influence as the launch of Sputnik.

Curiously (intentionally? accidentally?), Gargani ignores any debate over the view of science and scientists as “the enemy” in 1950s sci-fi cinema, which seems a huge error. The commonly held view is that movies of the era were based around the public’s fear of atomic age science - yes, advances could be used for good, but might not science kill us all? To discuss the then-modern view of science and not mention this, even as an introduction to your counterpoint, doesn’t work.

More problematic is the director’s approach, which is to throw a bunch of stuff out there at random and see what sticks. In one sequence, Dr. Leroy Dubeck, a physics professor at Temple University, discusses how he incorporates sci-fi stories into his teachings; we get the start of a few lessons (why ants can’t grow to massive “Them!” sizes, how the generators of “Forbidden Planet” can explain exponentials, etc.), but never the end, as if Gargani’s eye catches elsewhere just a couple minutes too early. As someone who loves this sort of stuff, it’s quite frustrating.

Other sequences involve: the 1950s trend in science education, and how Collier’s and Walt Disney allowed big name scientists to explain plans for the space race in great detail; how movies act as dreams, taking us through strange new worlds and bold adventures; how children were the perfect focal point for these mythical stories; how Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic continues a thought from “Destination Moon,” which predicted private industry, not big government, as the future of space travel; how the Kennedy inauguration was the culmination of a decade of excitement and wonder; how instructional films like “Atoms for Peace” were meant to sell the public on atomic energy without the no-nuke associations; and so on, and so on.

None of these pieces ever really fit together, and Gargani’s attempts to tie them to his everyone-loves-science theme result in clumsy transitions and, despite a brisk 71 minute run time, tired repetition. “Monsters” then pads it all out with overlong clips from the director’s favorite movies, which only moves the film away from its point. (For all its excitement over science, there’s too much here that wants merely to say, “Gee, weren’t these movies swell?”) Viewers looking to “Monsters” as an introduction to the 1950s sci-fi genre will walk away sorely lacking, and fans looking to the film for fresh perspectives on old favorites will walk away frustrated and bored.

But hey, cut it down just to the Homer Hickam stuff, and you’ve got something solid for when “October Sky” hits Blu-ray.

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originally posted: 03/14/09 23:54:35
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: Independent Film Festival of Boston 2009 For more in the Independent Film Festival Boston 2009 series, click here.

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1/10/10 Yobrsynk comment6, 3 stars
8/07/09 alexd285 Very nice site! 5 stars
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