With Monsters, British director Gareth Edwards has made the kind of movie that every aspiring indie filmmaker should see — at least those who are interested in catching the eye of Hollywood’s big boys.
At nearly every turn, Edwards maximizes the advantages and downplays the drawbacks of low-budget filmmaking, a reported $15,000. Of course, none of this would matter if Edwards didn’t have a story to tell. He does, and it’s an eerie and affecting one: Alien creatures are proliferating on Earth.
I know that sounds depressingly familiar, but by taking the burden off special effects, Edwards frees his powers of observation. He demonstrates a real feel for what it can be like to travel at a time when people are eager to cash in on catastrophe. He also makes terrific use of a variety of unfamiliar Central American locations, and builds his story around actors (Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy) who are good enough to keep us watching.
Able and McNairy play Sam and Andrew, characters who are trying to flee Mexico and return to the United States, where — presumably — they’ll be safe from aliens that occupy a large “infected” zone south of the U.S.-Mexican border.
As is the case in similar genre efforts, Andrew and Sam are people who only could spend time together if forced into contact by extreme circumstances — in this case the threat of attack by alien creatures transported to Earth by a NASA probe.
A photographer by trade, Andrew works for Sam’s publisher father, an executive who sets the plot’s road-movie elements in motion when he orders Andrew to escort his Mexico-based daughter home.
Perhaps to enhance the movie’s allegorical reach, Edwards shows us a massive wall that the U.S. has built to keep the aliens out. If this sounds a little too evocative of current fears about so-called “illegals,” you’re on the right track. But Edwards compensates for this unfortunately obvious comparison by sustaining a simmering level of tension.
I mentioned a lack of emphasis on special effects, but that doesn’t mean there are none. You can’t have a monster movie without eventually showing the monster. To do this, Edwards reportedly created his own effects, blazing a path from his computer to the big-screen.
When we finally see the creatures that give the movie its title, they look convincing. Or convincing enough. Besides, Edwards’ sound design adds to the ominous atmosphere. Nothing like the bellowing groans of a “monster” to bristle the hair on the back of a neck.
Monsters may have a stronger life on DVD than it does in theaters, but Edwards’ movie generates more involvement than lots of bigger productions, extravaganzas that squander fortunes and produce little more than scorn and boredom.
By taking his cameras to out-of-the-way places and knowing how to keep a story moving, Edwards creates a strange and ultimately haunting movie that catches us by surprise. He also reminds us that the most threatening “monster” stories may be those that are smart enough to keep their feet on the ground.