A Monster Calls
Directed by J.A. Bayona
Opens December 23
The term “Spielbergian” gets thrown around a lot, not least due to the sheer number of Hollywood-and-beyond filmmakers who grew up in the 70s and 80s hugely influenced by Spielberg’s heartfelt blockbusting. Sometimes this covers slavish imitators; sometimes stylistic virtuosos; and sometimes just directors who try to make mass-appeal popcorn movies with more heart than Michael Bay (kind of an evil nega-Spielberg: all the lens flares, plus a bullying contempt for most of humanity). The Spanish director J.A. Bayona makes an interesting case study because his new film A Monster Calls casts his previous two features in a more Spielbergian (streaming, mysterious) light.
His horror film The Orphanage is primarily an exercise in stylish, gore-eschewing suspense, but it’s sentimental (and technically impressive) enough to somewhat resemble a more Euro-inflected version of what Spielberg tried as writer-producer of Poltergeist. Similarly, his tsunami survival drama The Impossible doesn’t closely resemble a specific Spielberg picture, but his command of technology and disaster-movie scope in service of a family-reunification story feels like the master in retrospect.
The movie responsible for this reevaluation, A Monster Calls, is scarier than something like E.T. in and out of its fantastical conceits: The otherworldly creature who appears in front of a preteen boy (Lewis MacDougall) is not a small, friendly alien, but a gigantic tree-man with massive destructive power and the voice of Liam Neeson at his most sonorous; the real-world challenge this boy Conor faces is not divorce, but death. His mother (Felicity Jones) is in the late stages of cancer, and her treatments are starting to look distressingly ineffective.
Also unlike E.T. himself, the Monster doesn’t really exist in the “real” world of the movie. All of the destruction wrought during his visits is undone by the time another character enters the frame. He’s a lucid dream figure for Conor, appearing at key moments to tell gorgeously animated and morally murky stories—dark fairy tales of sorts—with the promise that once he’s told Conor three, Conor will have to tell his own story back to the Monster. Over the real world, Conor is lonely, and angry, and afraid; with his mum in hospital and his dad (Toby Kebbell) mostly fobbed off to America, he may be left in the care of his chilly grandmother (Sigourney Weaver).
A Monster Calls has the form of a children’s movie—it has a kid’s point of view (none of the adults are named), fantastical special effects, and breaks for animation—but has an emotional intensity that audience may not be used to. The Impossible felt like a family story, too, but it was too gory and terrifying for kids and not smart enough for adults. A Monster Calls isn’t as aggressively pointless about its sad spectacle; for any kid grappling with grief, it could be downright therapeutic. But at times it’s a little too on-the-nose to register as fully felt, like when Conor’s chief tormentor at school tells him, with disgust: “You’re always off in your own little dreamworld.” (Would that school bullies were always so clear about their resentments.) The movie has a weird way of keeping itself simple for kids who may not actually be watching it.
Still, due credit for a family film that goes to such sad places, and for MacDougall and Jones, who are very touching together. Ultimately, this is a tidy parable about the messy situation—but it does, at least, acknowledge that messiness. There have been several movies about grieving out this holiday season, and A Monster Calls is notable for covering the uncomfortable time between the introduction of a potential tragedy and its finishing point. The complicated emotions that Conor reveals about his mother’s illness give the movie’s tearjerking a sincerity that its actual characterization doesn’t always provide, and that Bayona’s filmmaking doesn’t ever approach from a completely fresh angle. Three movies in, it’s hard to say exactly who Bayona is, apart from a “darker” sorta-Spielberg who has yet to go as deep as Spielberg in, say, War of the Worlds. As of this writing, Bayona is prepping his next impersonal-sounding adventure: an untitled Jurassic World sequel.