In Monsters, the debut picture of newcomer Gareth Edwards, colossal alien beasts roam the lands south of the US/Mexico border after landing on Earth six years ago. The territory they inhabit, stretching south from the border through much of northern Mexico, has been deemed the “infected zone” and is considered hostile for human beings to wander through. But that doesn’t matter for photojournalist Andrew Kaulder– like it or not, his assignment is to spirit his employer’s daughter Samantha out of Mexico, and subsequently harm’s way, and back to safety in the United States. And through a series of misfortunes, their fastest route home is through the dense jungles where the extraterrestrial behemoths make their home.
But none of that really matters because Monsters isn’t an alien invasion story. It’s a romance and a road trip story that just happens to unfold in a world wherein the titular creatures– towering anomalies with clear heritage to the unthinkable otherworldly species of Lovecraft’s oeuvre– exist. Monsters, like so many great science fiction stories, introduces something bogus and unreal only to utilize it as a framework from which human drama and examinations of contemporary social issues are hung. The fantastic elements shape the direction of the plot and narrative, but they hang on the sidelines for the better part of the film’s running time and allow the relationship between Samantha and Kaulder to bloom as they both work through their individual dissatisfactions and hang-ups.
At the end of the day, Monsters may be praised and hailed not as a great movie (even though it is) but rather as a massive and impressive filmmaking accomplishment. Reportedly, Edwards spent $15,000 dollars on the entire film– which itself was shot on location using only a crew of two people who themselves were equipped with the best equipment available to the general public and not the best equipment available to a bona fide film crew. That Monsters is a prosumer achievement is sort of staggering; it’s photographed beautifully, and the monsters themselves look pretty incredible in their few (but nevertheless memorable) appearances. A scene in which a fighter jet rises to the surface of a river, and promptly gets dragged back beneath the water by enormous tentacles belonging to an unseen beast, looks like it should have cost thousands of dollars in funding on its own. Somehow, Edwards and his group (because come on, five people can hardly be called a crew) manage to bestow a facade of expense to their picture. If Monsters does not turn out to be your cup of extraterrestrial tea, at least the film can objectively be praised as a landmark movie for the first time director based on its technical merits in the face of its lacking budget.
But of course there’s more to Monsters than serious chutzpah and resourcefulness; his is a small movie with big ideas on its mind, though Edwards and co have the good taste to layer the picture with subtlety and nuance. A movie about humanity learning to co-exist (or, more accurately, about how humanity must learn to co-exist) with aliens from another world could have read very blatantly as commentary on the matter of illegal immigration and more specifically as a criticism of opposition efforts to keep “foreigners” out of America. Edwards and his cast and crew deliver Monsters to us with a light touch and circumvent the risk of being obnoxiously heavy-handed and inexcusably self-righteous, largely in part due to the wise decision to keep politics from ever directly impacting the film’s narrative.
There isn’t a central antagonist in Monsters, either, no mustache-twirling villain we’re meant to root against. Such an addition would spell disaster for a film whose central conceit thrives on ambiguity and moral grey areas– are the monsters really dangerous or does their violent behavior erupt out of a need to protect themselves? And are the humans necessarily wrong for responding to the presence of the visitors with strength of arms? Writing this I can envision a high-budget FX spectacle remake of this film utilizing a hard-nosed military general who adamantly believes that the aliens must be destroyed because this is Earth, dammit, and we were here first (insert as much additional jingoism as you deem necessary). Undoubtedly there are some unsavory types in the film, but all told our two heroes’ biggest human obstacles are government bureaucracy and opportunists who exploit the alien invasion for their own financial gain. After that, it’s between them and the unknown quantity that is the alien species lumbering across the infected zone.
The nature of Monsters demands two leads with the chops and charisma to carry the entire movie on their shoulders, and while I have no idea who Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy are they’re incredibly capable in the two primary roles. McNairy plays Kaulder with a detached and wry sense of humor, such that he hardly seems to care about anything beyond completing his task so that he can go on with his life; it’s an emotional curtain that gets thrown back halfway through the movie, where we start to get an idea of who this man really is and why he’s so guarded. Though McNairy takes his time turning Kaulder around it becomes easy to warm up to him once he begins to show signs of life outside of his photography and his quipping. Through Able, Samantha feels distant in her own way; she’s engaged, but she refuses to speak much about her fiancee or their relationship, and it becomes apparent quickly that she’s stuck in something unhappy. But Samantha’s compassionate, too, and it’s established early on that she connects with people in a way that Kaulder– hidden behind his camera– just doesn’t. Able makes Samantha likable right out of the gate with her strength, her energy, and her simultaneous vulnerability. They’re a great pair, and watching them contend with the innumerable road blocks– literal and figurative– in the path of both their journey to the US and their relationship is moving, amusing, and occasionally heart-breaking.
In a perfect world, Monsters will serve as the bench-mark of quality for all giant monster movies to follow in its wake, but the low-impact of the film and the minimal presence of the creatures probably don’t lend themselves to copy-catting or even to homage. Regardless, the monsters look pretty stupendous; maybe Edwards and his crew cheat by stipulating that they only come out at night, but be that as it may there’s a lot of detail and thought put into their design that really helps them jump off the screen and feel completely alive. From their appearance to their behavior and even to the sounds they make, they’re awesome and terrifying to behold.
Monsters lacks the kind of mayhem that one might expect from the trailers and from even the title, but looking past that what it does have is frankly much more valuable. Like last year’s District 9– a movie that Monsters will inevitably draw comparisons to– the film’s light on action and emphasizes plot and character over everything else while resting both of these elements on social consciousness. View the movie for what it is rather than what it isn’t and you’ll be rewarded with a thoughtful and breath-taking piece of indie science-fiction, and what I consider one of the best pictures of 2010.