(Monsters, Gareth Edwards, UK, 2010, 94mins)
If you like your alien movies big and brainless, watch Avatar. If, however, you prefer some substance with your style, then Monsters may just be the creature feature you have been waiting for. By making the most of a shoe-string budget, a cast of two and a crew of four, director Gareth Edwards not only shatters the illusion that it takes hundreds of millions of dollars to create great sci-fi, he introduces us to some new faces both on and off the screen that will be well worth watching over the next few years.
The film begins with the premise that, six years ago, NASA sent a probe into space to investigate the possibility of life in our solar system. The probe crash landed in Mexico upon re-entry and brought along some extra-terrestrial gooey-stuff for the ride. From this matter emerged gigantic, squid-like creatures which now roam free across central America, in an area now walled off and known as ‘the infected zone’. Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is a photographer visiting Mexico in the hope of landing a shot of the creatures that will make the front page of his publication. He receives a phone call asking him to act as an escort home to the boss’s daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) who is on holiday in the area and has been injured. After losing their passports the pair are forced to travel on foot through the infected zone, and come closer to the creatures than they could have imagined.
Much has been made of the fact that Monsters is so low budget, that only two professional actors were used, that the special effects were put together on the director’s laptop. It is testament to the skill of everyone involved then, that after about five minutes this is all forgotten, you could easily be watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Some of the early dialogue does seem somewhat forced and unnatural and the characters only begin to become likeable when they start talking to one another. McNairy (who looks like a less punchable version of Johnny Knoxville) and Able were a couple at the time Monsters was filmed and their chemistry is obvious. Much of the dialogue was ad-libbed and this creates the kind of on-screen rapport which can rarely be constructed by scripted dialogue. The budding relationship between the two is important as it is the experience they go through, rather than the alien invasion, which is Monster’s central concern. Gareth Edwards is not interested in regurgitating the alien invasion storyline for the billionth time, instead he presents a realistic, believable world in which the creatures have become an accepted fact of everyday life.
The aliens appear mostly in television news reports as we follow Andrew and Samantha on their travels. The camerawork is excellent, making the most of some stunning scenery while remaining unobtrusive and softly focused. This places the characters within the landscape in such a natural way that the overturned cars and boats stuck in trees are as genuinely affecting as the roaring of military jets in the distance. The creatures are by no means in the background of the film however. They penetrate every aspect of it, whether in the billowing smoke in the horizon or a mysterious noise that sets everyone on edge. When they do finally burst onto the screen towards the end of the film, the effect is awe-inspiring. Edwards has not only created life-forms which look real, he has created something which lives up to the word ‘alien’. His creatures are so completely unrecognisable, so vast and so different from us that the possibility of ever living in harmony with them is rendered laughable. They also move and communicate with such gentle beauty that we must question who the real ‘monsters’ are; the aliens which have found themselves trying to live on a strange and unwelcoming planet, or the United States military which provokes their acts of violence and leaves the poor and helpless to deal with the consequences.
Whether or not Gareth Edwards intended any such political message to be drawn from Monsters is open to debate. What is not, however, is his talent as a film-maker. Monsters is a heartfelt road movie, the story of a budding relationship, and an informed and intelligent sci-fi movie all brought together with thrilling visual flair, excellent characterisation and two subtle and genuine performances. In a fair world the likes of James Cameron would be sweating for his job on seeing Hollywood special effects on an indie budget. It is more likely that in a few years time, assuming his ability to make the most of a small budget doesn’t land him a position in the British government, it will be Gareth Edwards who is handed the big Hollywood dollars. On the evidence of Monsters, that could be truly worth waiting for.