In 2009, NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A probe was launched to collect samples from Europa, Jupiter’s moon, but crashed upon re-entry over Central America. Soon after, new life forms began to appear there and half of Mexico was quarantined as an Infected Zone. Today, the American and Mexican military still struggle to contain 'the creatures'... Later, a US photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) agrees to escort a shaken American tourist Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) through the infected zone in Mexico to the safety of the US border.
The marketers are pushing Monsters as 'this year’s District 9" but Gareth Edwards’ modern, moody alien-invasion take on The African Queen (1951) is arguably a better film. Patrons who are seeking out another adrenalised rush based on the notion that 'they walk among us’ will be disappointed; those open to deeper emotions within a high-concept genre setting will be thrilled.
Edwards, graduating to feature film director after years as a ground-breaking effects pioneer (In the Shadow of the Moon, 2007; BAFTA acclaim for the telemovie Hiroshima, 2005), refuses to fall into the trap that other FX-trained whiz-kids dig for themselves – he keeps the impressive CGI moments to an impactful minimum and instead focuses on the human drama at the centre of his story. With Monsters, he has announced himself as a filmmaker with a sharp eye and deft hand at story, composition, character and nuance – the very elements that many first-timers fail to master.
His self-penned narrative is relatively simple. Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a freelance photojournalist looking for that 'one big photo’, reluctantly accepts the job of escorting his wealthy boss’s daughter, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), back to the US from a remote jungle village in Mexico. Stranded and not exactly getting along, they are forced to trust some very disreputable locals (all non-professional actors sourced whilst on location) to take them through the 'Infected Zone’ – a vast section of jungle where alien creatures have been thriving since arriving on Earth on the back of a NASA probe six years ago.
We get a glimpse of the alien creatures in the film’s opening hand-held, night-vision scene – an army attack on what appears to be a five-storey tall, multi-limbed 'land-octopus’. The design is a variation on the alien visitors from both versions of War of the Worlds (1953, 2005) and Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield (2008) and it’s all Edwards needs to show to give his film a palpable and ongoing sense of foreboding menace. The influence of the alien race is evident throughout Monsters – giant fences protect townships, army helicopters and jet fighters fill the skies, buildings show the destructive might of the visitors – but, barring glimpses on TV news shows and a night-time attack on a jeep convoy, Edwards saves his big reveal until the final frames.
The realisation that Monsters isn’t going to be the Jurassic Park-meets-Predator adventure that the grossly misleading trailer promises sets in at about the 30 minute mark; it will be at this point that those in the audience not already won over by the relationship between Kaulder and Sam will get very restless. The dialogue is realistic and convincing but, for what many ticket-buyers thought would be a creature-feature, there is an awful lot of it (and may explain why it is being distributed by Hopscotch Films, a company known for arthouse hits rather than multiplex blockbusters).
As with the best of the sci-fi genre (and rather more obviously than most), political metaphors and satirical jabs are prevalent throughout Monsters. The very concept of the US having such a militaristic approach to 'aliens from south of the border’ says plenty; that the human population of Mexico is largely left to fend for themselves against the 'invaders’ speaks to America’s lack of involvement in Latin American issues unless it suits the domestic agenda.
The leads, who were a real-life couple whilst shooting the film, are thoroughly engaging in their roles (though the stunning Able, channelling a young Joan Allen, does seem a little too ethereal and new-agey at times, given the threat they both face in the Zone). Given its B-movie premise, the emotional core of the film is quite an achievement and on par with such highly-regarded sci-fi dramas as John Carpenter’s Starman (1984) and Steven Spielberg’s E.T The Extra-Terrestrial (1983).
Edwards’ film is a simple, quite touching love story. Monsters’ overriding theme is of the universal need for connection; the stirring final minutes and prophetic last words of the film state that profoundly. That Gareth Edwards should achieve such a terrific-looking and deeply-satisfying debut work (on what was, by all accounts, a budget of little more than US$20,000) surely suggest a significant new filmmaker has arrived.