It seems to be the season for beings from other worlds coming to visit our planet. Box offices around the world are currently ablaze with Skyline, a film reminiscent of 1996’s Independence Day, and one of the hottest trailers doing the rounds on the Interweb at the moment is Green Lantern, based on the DC Comics series. Of course, these are all blockbuster films, which have (at least for the last few decades) been the appropriate channel for would-be extraterrestrial invaders to take out their aggressions on our small blue globe three rocks aways from the sun. Monsters, from director Gareth Edwards, bucks this trend with a modest budget of $500,000 that was used to shoot on location largely in Central and South America over a three-week period.
Six years ago, a NASA probe crashed to Earth with an alien presence aboard. Since that time, a large section around the US-Mexican border has been classified an ‘Infected Zone’ and the giant squid-like creatures are still difficult to control by the military. South of the border, photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) has been asked to escort the publisher’s daughter Sam (Whitney Able, best know for cult-hit All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) back to the United States. What at first seems like a simple task becomes complicated when their passports are stolen and they are unable to take the sole ferry back to America. They must now travel through the Infected Zone if they hope to get back to their native soil, but the path is paved with peril.
The plot may sound reminiscent of the surprise South African hit District 9, in that both films feature a quarantined zone full of aliens. Yet apart from both being original takes on the genre and making clever uses of special effects, this is pretty much where the comparisons should end. Indeed, if one were to look for a more apt comparison, it would be Matt Reeves’ (Let Me In) film Cloverfield, although that was somehow filmed on a budget 50 times larger than Monsters! However, both films deal with real-world issues in a sci-fi setting – Apartheid in the case of District 9, and immigration/border patrol in this case – and both give us the perspective of an outsider looking in. Many a critic sitting around me in the press screening frantically scrambled to jot down Andrew’s line “It’s different looking at America from the outside,” one that I swore I wouldn’t make a big deal of in this review. Yet this brief self-conscious moment of commentary does break with the rest of the film in overtly stating some kind of politics, although it is a superficial one at best. Monsters works best at its most simplistic: as a character piece.
Yet despite these minor attempts at insight, this isn’t a heavy-handed moral tale, and despite some impressive visual effects (used with incredible restraint by former effects man Edwards), it isn’t purely an effects movie either. It is about the journey, and two people who find themselves the victims of very unusual circumstance, potentially doomed before they even begin their journey. Real-life couple McNairy and Able have a terrific chemistry on-screen, and the minimal use of the monsters makes them even more powerful during their few onscreen moments. Much of the dialogue was ad-libbed to keep it fresh for every take, and the use of locations rather than sets (apparently used without permission in some cases) gives the journey a sense of immediacy that a carefully constructed scene in a bigger-budget picture never could.
Monsters may not be a major blockbuster in 2010, but it is a throughly enjoyable and evenly paced film that is visually striking and indicative of the many talents that writer/director/cinematographer/production designer/visual effects creator Gareth Edwards has. Like Robert Rodriguez’s debut feature El Mariachi, we get just a taste of what this man is capable of with a small budget and his own two hands. Film fans of all kinds should be excited at the prospect of what Edwards will deliver in the not-too-distant future.
Monsters is in Australian cinemas from 25 November 2010 from Madman, and hits its native UK on 3 December.