Those of you going into Monsters expecting a campy action film where monsters snatch up screaming women and chomp up men with their razor sharp teeth are going to be disappointed; Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is not that movie.
It is not a monster movie in the same vein as the Universal horror films of the 1950s or even more recent fair by Guillermo del Toro. In fact, the title of Monsters is extremely misleading. Yes, there are monsters in this film — aliens to be precise — but they are nothing like the giant radioactive ants of Them! or the Creature from the Black Lagoon. This is primarily a film about a man and a woman finding each other in the midst of a difficult situation. It’s a road-movie romance… that just happens to have giant space squids.
Like District 9 of last year, Monsters offers a compelling vision of a future where humanity has been brought into contact with alien life. In Monsters, a NASA probe brought alien spores from Europa back to Earth, crash-landing in Central America and turning half of Mexico into a quarantined Infected Zone. Within this Infected Zone roam giant space squids a hundred metres long, looking like something out of an H. P. Lovecraft story. Six years after the initial contact, photographic journalist Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is contracted to escort his boss’ daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), through the Infected Zone to the safety of the U.S. border. It’s a simple situation and Edwards’ takes advantage of the plot’s flexibility to give us a complete image of the world full of monsters.
Most of Monsters’ dialogue and plot is improvised. Edwards’ script consisted of prose paragraphs outlining various scenes leaving out specifics like dialogue and location. He allowed the actors the freedom to react however they desired to the situations he put them in. Because of this freedom, there’s the occasional misstep into the mumblecore aesthetic of meaningless conversation for no other purpose than being “realistic.” For the most part, actors McNairy and Able are compelling and their conversations have purpose, revealing their characters bit by bit and slowly endearing themselves to the audience and each other.
One of the best parts of this matter-of-fact approach to the story is that the world seems completely real and lived in. The monsters are taken as facts of life and the characters are forced to react to these extra-terrestrial circumstances like they would any other inconvenience in modern life. There’s something refreshing about a film that deals with the fantastical as mundane. To many of the locals that populate the film — Edwards’ used non-actors in the various parts of Central America where he filmed to portray the people Kaulder and Sam come across — the facts of life created by the monsters are treated in much the same way as the facts of life of a third-world country or a warzone. The people aren’t happy with their circumstances, but life goes on and they’re forced to adapt and endure.
Part of the allure of a movie like Monsters is how much it accomplishes with so little resources. Apparently its cost was in the tens of thousands, and yet the film looks like it cost millions. Edwards produced all the visual effects himself on his own computer and the results are stunning, far better than many effects in recent blockbusters like Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. The choice to use non-actors to portray all the supporting roles and to film on location in Central America just goes to show how effective guerilla filmmaking can be.
By its closing minutes, we’ve come to realize that the term “monster” is arbitrary; we all have monsters in our lives standing between us and our goals, albeit not hundred-metre tall squids. A good science fiction film both wows us with its vision of the fantastic and makes us reflect upon the realities of the world we inhabit. Monsters has its obvious metaphors concerning illegal immigration and the Mexican-American Border, but beyond these political statements, it’s the honest portrayal of people’s relationships with each other and with their environment that make it a successful film.