Directed By: Gareth Edwards
Written By: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able
MPAA: Rated R
Before he was tasked to reinvigorate the Godzilla franchise, British director Gareth Edwards had exactly one film under his belt: Monsters, a tale of survival, political unrest and giant alien squid monsters from who-knows-where. Released in 2010, Monsters is indie-movie to the core; budgets were kept painstakingly low, special effects done completely in-house, dialogue mostly ad-lib, and inventive creativity playing a far bigger role than one would expect from a pseudo-alien invasion flick. Monsters is an art-house film with a mainstream heart, highlighting bouts of irony and social injustice with just enough visual spectacle to keep things well within the realms of popcorn-friendly disbelief suspension. It’s not a masterpiece, but it goes to show the incredible promise of Edwards’ craft, and if nothing else, it should definitely be watched by Star Wars fans who left the theater underwhelmed from his rendition of Godzilla (Edwards has been tapped to direct an upcoming Star Wars spin-off film).
The world of Monsters is a grim one, with an alien infestation forcing a strict border between southern America and Mexico. This is bad news for photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), who has been ordered to retrieve Samantha (Whitney Able), his boss’s daughter, from a dangerous Mexican territory and escort her back to the good ol’ US of A. Despite the tight border regulations, further complications arise with capitalistic greed and tension between the haves and have-nots. There are only two ways to get across the border, you see: by road, which is absolutely dangerous, and by ferry, which is far safer, and therefore much more expensive. Ferry rides are also extremely limited, raising the supply and demand stakes to eventual plot-device limits. There’s an hour and a half of movie time to fill, so through a series of unfortunate events Kaulder and Samantha are forced to unsurprisingly take the sinister road better less traveled.
McNairy and Able were an item during the filming of Monsters, and their natural chemistry is well utilized, but the real stars of the film are the actual people making up the remainder of the cast. In an ingenious move, Edwards hired on actual locals to play roles in the movie, most of whom aren’t even really acting in the traditional sense. By allowing the extras to simply be themselves, Monsters creates a believable template within a wholly unrealistic set-up, giving the film a healthy dose of everyday humanity. Even with the apparent threat of an unknown extraterrestrial element, Edwards’ film is about a struggling population–a glaring reminder that the 99% exist well beyond American borders–and how they manage to deal with life-threatening situations on a day to day basis.
The only real weakness presented through the film exists in the actual narrative, which can be plodding at times. There are too many quiet moments between Kaulder and Samantha, and even though their interactions take up a majority of screen time, character development is subpar at best. It’s not impossible to route for their survival, but their relationship is kind of a mixed bag thanks to a tacked on love story element (they develop feelings for each other, she’s unhappily engaged to be married, yawn). They’re not unlikable, per se, but their budding relationship leaves much to be desired. Monsters would have benefited from two platonic leads.
And then there are the aliens, who are given only a brief amount of screen time, but are never forgotten throughout the movie. Edwards takes a very Spielbergian approach to revealing the “Monsters” of the film, proving once again that the less we see throughout the film, the more rewarding the payoff. When they finally do arrive, the aliens are rather majestic, and only the most nitpicky of audience members will complain about their slightly lesser-than-Hollywood presentation. Thanks to mostly excellent supporting characters, those invested with Monsters won’t even be able to discern a low budget.