Boston Dynamics did it again. Recently, the perpetually viral robotics company came up with mechanical automatons that could perform marvelous feats of parkour in controlled spaces. They’ve made robots dance, open doors, and walk around — all for seemingly peaceful purposes.
But Hollywood has trained us too well: seeing these robots shake and shimmy, it’s hard not to imagine them hunting down humans. If you’ve got any interest in seeing what that would look like, Mark Toia’s 2020 debut offers a pretty clear, compelling vision of a future in which our advanced technology has turned on us, with deadly results.
Here’s why you need to stream Monsters of Man now that it’s on Amazon Prime.
While the plot of this DIY sci-fi feature revolves around the humans forced to work with and run from killer robots, the machines themselves are the stars of the show.
That’s a testament to Australian filmmaker Toia’s background in advertising. A rookie director in the most technical meaning of the word, he’s been behind the camera for over 20 years directing high-profile ads for everything from Jeep to the Bank of China. Like Michael Bay before him, Toia is now using his experience in advertising to create beautifully framed action sequences and gorgeous, striking shots.
Toia also co-wrote the script for Monsters of Man, which could use some work. Speaking to JoBlo in late 2020, Toia said that his son told him that his movie “ripped off Rambo, Predator, and Terminator.” His son is correct. Set in Cambodia, the movie focuses on a test run of killer robots by a shady tech company, which is vying for a major deal with the American government.
Meant to take out drug traffickers, these robots come across a group of do-gooder doctors, who become witnesses to their illegal actions. Soon, it’s up to an ex-Navy SEAL (Brett Tutor), who just happens to be living in the Cambodian village, to save everyone from a robot-facilitated massacre. That’s the jungle setting of Predator, the killer robots of Terminator, and the lone-wolf operative of Rambo, for those keeping score at home.
Shot in Cambodia on a self-financed budget of $1.6 million, Toia also handled his film’s cinematography. The country’s hilly jungles come through in beautiful greens, with the light often shining in just the right way to illuminate some extraordinary fauna.
Though the movie employed a Cambodian crew, slim roles for native Cambodians on-screen in Monsters of Man leave much to be desired. Some elements of ‘80s-tastic action movies didn’t need to be brought back, and that includes the casting of people of color as either one-dimensional thugs or one-dimensional angels. Besides, most of the Cambodian characters in Monsters of Man end up as cannon fodder. In fact, a child from the village, Leap (Ly Ty), is the only Cambodian character who stands out in any meaningful way.
The movie ping-pongs between three general locations. There’s the jungle itself, where the doctors are running around screaming. At another remote location, the robots are being controlled by three in-over-their-heads tech nerds being yelled at by a commando meathead (Jose Rosete, from The Walking Dead webisodes Red Machete). One of these techies, Kroger (David Haverty), comes as close as anyone in the film to having a full-on personality: his pride in his autism, demand for energy bars, and willingness to sell out others for profit all make him a very believable coder-for-hire.
There’s also a third story wheel taking place in Washington D.C, where a shady military official (Neal McDonough, from Captain America: The First Avenger) is watching the action. McDonough, separated from the rest of the cast, spends most of his time staring at a screen, yelling “Fuck!” or throwing papers off his desk angrily.
But this movie is not called Watch Neal McDonough Cash an Easy Paycheck. It’s called Monsters of Man. And the monsters definitely deliver. Originally, the movie was only supposed to have around six visual effects shots, Toia told the No Film School podcast.
He set out to mirror movies that hide their monsters for added suspense, such as Gareth Edwards’ Monsters or John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place. “But once we started shooting, I just stared at these guys walking around in blue suits [for visual effects] thinking, ‘Wow, imagine if every single shot was a robot,’” he told the podcast. Ultimately, Toia said he decided, “‘Let’s do that.’”
This decision, which pushed the post-production process over budget, resulted in 2,500 VFX shots. It was definitely the right call, as the robots are extremely cool, with a gritty military look and fun robot voices. They roam the Cambodian jungle looking to hunt down witnesses to their crimes, grabbing at them with mechanical hands, translating their languages, and somehow cancelling several self-destruct orders from techies.
Late in the movie, Monsters of Man starts to become philosophical about the differences between robots and soldiers. It doesn’t take these questions seriously, as scenes pondering such an existential crisis then transition into scenes of two killer robots whaling on each other. But it’s the latter kind of money shot — bots pulverizing one another as a shootout erupts around them — that satisfies most. When it eases up on the philosophy, Monsters of Man can be a blast.
Monsters of Man has emerged as a surprise pandemic hit, entering the top 10 in sci-fi/fantasy download charts on iTunes based off its exciting trailer. Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, Toia recently said he is getting new scripts “every morning,” suggesting he’ll be back. And that’s great news. This director clearly understands the visual language of cinema. It will be fascinating to see what he does with someone else’s story.
Monsters of Man is now streaming on Amazon Prime.