Gareth Edwards describes his debut feature film as “not a love story for boys or a monster movie for girls” but a “road movie for aliens.” An exercise in do it yourself cinema, Edwards, who handled writing and directing duties as well as the production design and special effects, shot the film in central America with a micro crew and budget. But despite its humble beginnings, the alien invasion road trip hybrid has emerged as one of this year’s more memorable films.
Monsters begins six years after NASA, in a ham-fisted attempt at recovering samples of alien life inadvertently turned half of North America into a Jurassic Park for extra-terrestrials. A probe containing the samples broke up in our atmosphere and has contaminated what is now referred to as the infected zone: an ill-conceived attempt at containment.
In the opening scene, shot in glimmering night vision, the camera rides shotgun with a military convoy on patrol in an unspecified location. Suddenly, an alien appears and all hell breaks loose. As soldiers bark orders and machine guns chatter the camera snatches glimpses of a towering mess of tentacles bathed in eerie green light and a few things becomes abundantly clear: America’s latest illegal aliens are seemingly impervious to machine gunfire, capable of mass acts of wanton destruction and very, very big.
American photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), has trekked down to Mexico in a bid to capture some stills of one of the beasties in action (supposedly worth $50,000 a shot), only to be tasked with escorting his boss’s daughter, Samantha Windon (Whitney Able), back across the border to safety, her wealthy father, and (one imagines) her bland husband-to-be.
The only problem is the monsters are rebelling against the strongly contested containment zone in a bid to placate their instinctual need to migrate. The pair arrive at the border the day before it closes where they become close while sightseeing in the crumbling Mexican border town. But not close enough as Kaulder ultimately seeks comfort in the arms of a local temptress, who in turn robs him of both their passports. Now, unable to go around, over or under the infected zone, they are forced to make the dangerous overland journey through it…
The attraction here is not as the title suggests, but the characters; McNairy and Able are up to the challenge and both deliver compelling performances. Their chemistry is palpable and believable, almost enjoyable — hardly surprising considering the real-life couple just tied the knot. As for the remainder of the cast, Edwards opts for civilians over actors, who look the part and add a level of depth that only enhances the very human, character-driven story.
Apart from the odd tentacle, we see little of the monsters, but their destructive aftermath, in the form of candle-lit vigils for lost children, displaced cruise liners, and destroyed vistas of broken cities, make sure we keep them in the forefront of our mind. Edwards strikes a superb balance where less has actually become more, as the monsters’ absence and occasional otherworldly wails only heighten the tension.
The script is solid and in parts the dialogue is minimal, with emotions conveying what words cannot. Monsters is unlike any other film you will see this year and all the better for it. The plot is simple but Edwards delivers, low on action but high on intensity the film, as promised, holds appeal for both sexes. Given the limited nature of Edward’s resources and the long-lasting impact this film is likely to have, he establishes himself as a promising filmmaker, leaving audiences wondering what he’d be capable of given a major budget.
4.5 out of 5