Skyline, that tacky alien-invasion flick you’ve hopefully managed to avoid, showcased the ease in which a shoddy B-movie can obtain a global cinematic release by virtue of its impressive visual effects. Although that in itself isn’t surprising – hi there, Transformers 2 – the fact that Skyline was made from the contents of Hollywood’s swear jar most certainly is. My point? If el cheapo B-movies can now be spruced-up to look like big-budget blockbusters, then there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing a lot more junk bypassing bargain bins and polluting our screens.
But there is still hope. Monsters, another D.I.Y alien-invasion movie, arrives just in time to remind us that cheaply-made sci-fi does not necessarily mean poorly-made sci-fi. Much like Skyline, Monsters has been made by a visual FX artist, but thankfully unlike Skyline, it has been made by a visual FX artist who also happens to know a thing or two about constructing an absorbing film, not just a pretty one. His name is Gareth Edwards. His future in filmmaking is bright.
The title Monsters is more than a little misleading. Although the film does feature gigantic, destructive aliens that roam the jungles of Mexico in what is now known as the “Infected Zone”, Monsters is less about these creatures and more about the altered way of life that that has resulted from their arrival. I’d sooner call it a romantic road movie than an all-out monster mash, so don’t go in expecting any of the characters to snarkily say “Welcome to Earth” while punching aliens square in the noggin. Doesn’t happen.
Stranded on the southern border of the Infected Zone is Sam (Whitney Able), the daughter of a wealthy media mogul who barely escapes with her life when a monster attacks the city. This happens a lot, it would seem, as everyone just carries on with their day like it’s no biggie. The only ones kicking up a fuss are the US military, treating the Mexican aliens like they’ve always treated Mexican aliens: by not letting them in.
Looking to snap up a few money shots of the creatures, news photographer Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is informed by his boss – Sam’s father – that he must escort her back to US soil. When all the usual modes of transport are cut off, the two decided (rather foolishly) to make the dangerous trek through the Infected Zone. Of course, a romance blossoms on their journey, but it’s a thoroughly convincing one at that. Married in real life, McNairy and Able have tremendous chemistry together, enhanced by the way in which Edwards allows their kinship plenty of time to develop naturally. Nothing about this film is immediate; it’s all intimated with refreshing restraint.
It truly boggles the mind that Monsters cost around $500,000 to make. To put that in perspective, the Ryan Reynolds thriller Buried cost four times as much as that… and that film is set entirely inside a wooden box. Edwards, an inspiration for independent filmmakers everywhere, demonstrates that you don’t need big bucks to pull of an exotic sci-fi, you just need to be incredibly driven and extremely resourceful. He managed to keep costs down by not only shooting the whole thing on the run in Mexico, but also by asking bystanders to play supporting roles and by doing all the visual effects himself. While the CGI isn’t quite Hollywood-grade, Edwards is clever with his implementation, keeping the monsters out of sight (but certainly not out mind) for much of the film. By playing on our intrinsic fear of the unknown, Monsters turns out to be far more convincing, compelling and unnerving than the likes of Skyline where the aliens are constantly in the limelight.
That being said, even I’ll admit the film could do with a few more shots of adrenaline, especially given the simplicity of the journey-home narrative. Although it never loses its suspenseful edge, Edwards does place a little too much onus on the romance and drama, likely alienating those who would usually pay to see a movie called Monsters in the first place. But the title does pose a pertinent question: who are the real monsters of this story?
Listen to our phone interview with Monsters writer/director Gareth Edwards:
Interview with MONSTERS director Gareth Edwards.
Follow the author Anders Wotzke on Twitter.