“If Cloverfield and Independance Day were 9/11, then this is Afghanistan”
With a budget of only a few hundred thousand pounds, 2 actors and a sound technician, Gareth Edwards set off to Central America to shoot his debut feature. ‘Monsters’ is a great film in its own right, but considering the limited resources Edwards had at his disposal it is also a huge achievement.Monsters is set in Mexico, 6 years after a space probe sent to recover samples of life from a distant moon broke up during re-entry to our atmosphere. The Northern half of Mexico has become an ‘infected zone’ overrun by creatures which initially colonise trees before growing into what could only be described as giant, walking land octopus. But this isn’t your typical monster film. The aliens aren’t hellbent on destroying earth and all mankind, in fact they aren’t even the main aspect of the story. Monsters is more road-movie than alien blockbuster. Andrew Kaulder, (Scot Mcnairy) a photographer working in Mexico for an American publication, is contacted by the publications owner and told to find his daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) and make sure she gets home. With all other options exhausted, the pair realise they need to travel overland through the dangerous infected zone in order to reach the US border, where a wall has been built to keep out the Mexic…. I mean aliens.
At the heart of Monsters is the relationship between Kaulder and Samantha, which has an almost lost in translation-y feel to it. Two people meeting at a point in time, in an alien (intended) landscape and finding comfort in each other’s company. The performances are thoroughly engaging, the dialogue realistic and their interactions with local people feel totally authentic. This is a film about travelling as much as aliens, and Edwards is spot on in his portrayal of life on the road. The frustrating interactions with local travel agents, conversations about nothing in particular and long bus and boat trips spent watching the world go by, are all taken straight from the real world. Several minutes of the film are simply scenes of the stunning landscape rolling past, none of the locals in the film are actors and the script was largely improvised on the road as the cast and crew made their way through Central America. The film was very much shot in the style of a documentary, and it shows.
The great strength of Monsters is the way in which this authentic on-the-road atmosphere is seamlessly superimposed onto a beautifully created backdrop of aliens, destruction and war… and they are just a backdrop. The fighter jets overhead, discarded tanks littering the countryside, smoking ruins, stunning sunsets, “extra-terrestriales” warning signs and powerful calls of ‘the creatures’ sporadically ringing out through the air all combine to create a wonderful atmosphere and visually stunning results.
There’s another reason that this isn’t your typical big-screen alien invasion. I enjoyed the fact that it was set in a poor, rural and beautiful landscape (not New York or whatever…) and that the aliens were portrayed as being a part of nature with their annual migration, showing no interest in harming humans unless they get in the way or provoke them.
Having said all that, the film isn’t without its problems. As was the case with District 9, Monsters attempts to use the creatures plight to voice a political message, this time on US immigration and foreign intervention policies. The aliens in Mexico being kept out of the US by a wall, the American military fighting a war abroad that they can’t possibly win….. getting anything? Unfortunately, as with District 9, it fails to deliver any punch. The messages are too obvious and somewhat heavy handed, particularly when alluded to in the script. This doesn’t neccesarily detract from the film, it just fails to add anything to it. As much as I enjoyed the authenticity of much of the dialogue, the script was also a little light on meaningful interaction between the two characters.
Despite being generally well received by critics Monsters (judging by comments and ratings on imdb) doesn’t seem to be sitting so well with the general public and that points to another problem, Marketing. The deceptive trailer and poster would suggest that this is a CGI fuelled alien blockbuster, full of scares and action. The reality is that it is an independent road movie, more mumblecore romance than Hollywood action and that actually you see very little of the monsters. The marketing simply isn’t reaching out to the right audience, and is leaving many viewers feeling quite understandably a little cheated by the lack of monster activity. When they do appear though they’re not a disappointment and the final scene is nothing short of spectacular.
Gareth Edwards wrote, directed, and shot the entire film. The special effects and CGI scenes, all of which are outstanding, were rendered by Edwards himself, on his laptop, using standard Adobe software. For this reason Monsters is not only a hugely impressive film in its own right, but also a great achievement. Hollywood studios should sit up and take notice of what it’s now possible to create with £500,000, 2 actors, a sound technician and an off the shelf laptop.