Six years after Earth has suffered an alien invasion, a cynical photo-journalist agrees to escort a shaken American tourist through an infected zone in Mexico to the safety of the US border. This area has been off-limits since alien spores returned to Earth on a space probe. Many aliens live in the infected zone, from mushroom-like plant life through to giant, tentacled jellyfish creatures.
The new film MONSTERS is a rare beast indeed; a smart alien invasion flick, a creature-feature with heart, an unpredictable monster movie. It pulls this trick by focusing on the human story of the photographer (McNairy) and the tourist (Able). More than anything, MONSTERS is a road movie and a relationship tale, which accounts for it taking up residence in our nation’s indie and arthouse cinemas rather than opening wide. Delicate feelings don’t sell as many movie tickets as eyebrow singeing orange fireballs.
The film’s writer, director and visual effects guru is Englishman Gareth Edwards. Although this is his first feature, there is a tautness in the story-telling and slickness in the production that would suggest it was the work of a more experienced filmmaker working with a bigger budget.
There are a number of stories circulating the Web about the production’s minimal budget (US$15,000). This has the feeling of a creation myth crafted to satisfy the movie’s marketing people and to give reviewers like myself a tidbit to pull out the press-kit. As skeptical as this writer is, let’s say even if the film actually cost 100 times that amount, it was money well-spent.
Edwards worked with comprehensive storyboards, a storyline, but apparently not a word for word script. He had a real life couple play the leads and allowed them a great deal of latitude in improvising dialogue. Rather than the repetitive chaos this can lead to, Edwards approach resulted in a very coherent, naturalistic film.
The lead actors Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able are relative unknowns who have paid their dues in other indie movies and guest shots in American network television. Their performances are central to the success of MONSTERS. Able plays the daughter of a media mogul and McNairy is an ambitious photo-journalist who is trying to make a name for himself in her father’s company. There is some subtle byplay about their class differences. However both Americans are strangers in a third world country, hoping to buy their way back to safety. So wealth and class count at all levels.
MONSTERS references a number of issues without ever being preachy or obvious about them; the attitude of the US towards Mexico, the technological power of the US Military and the ethics of photographing death and destruction are but three examples. We are shown the foreign and the familiar, the alien and the everyday. This switching between points of view and the crash of images creates a world that is recognisable as our own, but also scarily different in some key ways. Here the movie is like CHILDREN OF MEN or DISTRICT 9.
The film almost never makes an expected move and here is where some audiences may find it doesn’t deliver the action that the premise suggests. This is not WAR OF THE WORLDS. It is the exact opposite of another recently released alien-themed movie SKYLINE. Hardly anything blows up. Characters change and develop. There is no ass-kicking or final reckoning. Anyone expecting a orgiastic violent finale will be sorely disappointed.
MONSTERS is a movie about the mystery of our existence. If you’re a fan of the work of astronomer Carl Sagan, then you may enjoy this small film that reminds us of the big idea that we are not alone in the Universe.
Monsters was released in Australia on Novemeber 25th. It runs for 94 minutes. I rated it 4/5.