Being Film #4 in Hail Horror 5
Turns out the surprise was on me. Not because MONSTERS, the micro-budget (reportedly made for $15,000) debut from British visual effects artist Gareth Edwards is a bad movie - it most definitely isn't - but it also definitely isn't a horror movie. You wouldn't necessarily gather that from the trailers, however, which try to push the "dangerous thing hunting down the young couple" aspect a bit more than I think serves the film. Despite all that, though, MONSTERS is a incredible example of what one can do with limited funds but boundless amounts of passion.
After discovering evidence of extra-terrestrial life, a small satellite carrying samples crashes through the Earth's atmosphere, landing in Mexico where over the course of six years becomes a walled-off Infected Zone, where the organisms have grown into towering behemoths capable of ripping apart buildings and laying massive amounts of destruction in their wake. The Mexican and American governments are doing all they can to contain the menace, but all too often that involves air strikes and chemical weapons that potentially do more harm to the human populace than the aliens ever would.
Thrust into this carefully constructed world is Andrew Kaulder, a photo journalist staying in Mexico in the hopes of getting that front-page shot that will catapult him into the big leagues. After one of the aliens decimates a small town he's ordered by the magazine he works for to escort Samantha Wynden, the boss's daughter who was injured in the battle, to safety. If this sounds a bit like a clichéd set-up, where the reluctant hero has to escort the damsel in distress across a dangerous land, well, it is. But Edwards smartly stays away from the usual Hollywood action beats this type of story would follow for the most part, instead putting the focus on MONSTERS' biggest strength: the realization of a world coping with a genuine alien threat.
The film is beautifully shot, and Edwards' expertise in visual effects makes the world Andrew and Sam have to traverse look as real, as tangible, as anything budgeted upwards of $50 million dollars or having the word "Rings" in the title (You can check out a short, relatively spoiler-free video here showing how Edwards achieved some of the effects). Some criticism has been levied at the acting and the dialog, which was largely improvised, but overall I think Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able has some genuine chemistry, and sell the believability of the story pretty well. Most of their story is the travel through the Infected Zone to America, the people they meet along the way, and their struggle with their own personal issues, inflated as they grow to care for one another.
In fact, the "monsters" of the film's title are for the most part relegated to the background: there are two sequences when the threat is more direct, but for the most part they serve as the backdrop for Andrew and Sam to address their situation, both in the jungle and in their lives. However, when they are finally front and center, the effects are impressive, giving a strong sense of size and staying suitably alien: this isn't man-in-suit, bi-pedal aliens, these are truly other-worldly beings severely out of place on our planet. The climax of the film allows us our first real glimpse of these creatures, and as Andrew and Sam find out, there's much more to these beings then anyone first realized.
Sporting a deliberate, tourist-y pace to allow the viewer to become fully immersed in the world, MONSTERS is a bold take on a classic science fiction premise, and a promising debut from Gareth Edwards. There have been a lot of comparisons to films like DISTRICT 9, but I think MONSTERS benefits from never diverting from the type of story it wants to tell, and for using the most of its visual flare to tell what is at its heart a very simple story of two lost people trying to find their way out of the wilderness.