Written and Directed by Gareth Edwards.
Starring Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able.
After discovering the possibility of alien life in our solar system, NASA launches a space probe which crash lands in Mexico, creating an ‘infected zone’. Six years later a cynical photojournalist agrees to escort a shaken American tourist through the perilous Mexican terrain to the safety of the US border.
The debut feature from British writer-director Gareth Edwards, Monsters is an ambitious low-budget sci-fi drama that has been making a bit of a splash in the festival circuit this past year. After premiering at SXSW back in March, the hype continued to build with successful screenings at the likes of the Cannes, Edinburgh and Los Angeles film festivals prior to its arrival here in the UK for a run of special BAFTA preview screenings in selected cities last week.
Influenced by the likes of Cloverfield and District 9, Monsters is set six years after the arrival of alien life on earth. When a NASA space probe crash lands in South America a new species emerges; giant octopus-like extraterrestrials that quickly spread across Mexico towards the US border, leading to the creation of a vast ‘quarantined zone’. Obviously the Americans are concerned by these developments and construct a huge “Great Wall of Texas”-type structure to keep the invaders at bay, along with the obligitory ‘bombing to hell’ that goes hand-in-hand with such a threat to their national security.
The film opens with a ‘found-footage’ sequence of US soldiers giddily driving into battle in an armoured vehicle, one of them whistling his own theme-tune (The Ride of the Valkyries, naturally). This does a pretty good job of setting up your typical alien invasion action flick, only for the film to then shift gears completely as we are introduced to the first of our main characters, Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist who has travelled to Mexico to document the carnage for an American magazine.
Kaulder finds his job description changing when his boss’s daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) is injured in a military strike and he is tasked with accompanying her back to the safety of the US, which is of course no mean feat when said task involves navigating miles upon miles of hostile alien-infested territory. However, the titular ‘monsters’ make only fleeting appearances, taking a back seat to the human element of the story as both characters embark on a physical and emotional journey, which ably conveyed by the two leads who, as you’d come to expect from a real-life couple, share plenty of chemistry and deliver strong performances.
Much of the praise must be reserved for Edwards, who manages to amplify his budget (rumoured to be between $15,000 and $500,000) ten-fold and deliver a genuine lesson in guerrilla filmmaking. Serving as writer, director, cinematographer and VFX artist, Edwards and a small crew shot on location across South America, utilising non-actors to fill the remaining roles and working from general storyboards as opposed to a set screenplay. The fact that the film never feels improvised is testament both to the cast and to Edwards’ skills as a director, while the seemless CGI continues to demonstrate his talents as a visual effects artist (Edwards built his name in this field, contributing to BBC productions such as Seven Wonders of the Industrial World in addition to the acclaimed feature documentary In the Shadow of the Moon).
Although I personally enjoyed the film, there were a few dissenting voices at the screening with a number of people commenting on the lack of action and/or ‘monsters’. I suppose in fairness that’s the risk you run when opting for such a title and if people are going in to this expecting Independence Day then they will no doubt be disappointed. It is by no means a typical ‘popcorn’ flick and if that’s what you’re after then there are plenty of suitable alternatives, but as a small-scale character study that just happens to be set against the backdrop of an alien invasion Monsters is certainly worth a look and really leaves you wondering what Edwards could achieve with a larger budget at his disposal.
Monsters is set for release on December 3rd.
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