Monsters film review

Día de independencia

12a * 94 mins * 3 December 2010
Distributor: Vertigo Films
Director: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able

Toddlers wear gas masks. Kids swing on barbed wire. Poor farmers salvage the engines from US military jets to sell the parts for scrap. This is what the aftermath of an alien attack on South America looks like, and it’s a haunting sight…

Arriving on a tidal wave of hype from the festival circuit, Monsters is the debut feature from Gareth Edwards. The aliens are the result of a space probe filled with samples from a moon of Jupiter crash-landing over Central America. Years later, giant alien squids roam an infected zone the size of Texas, as the armed forces try to keep them away from civilian areas. After (Whitney Able), daughter of an American media mogul, is wounded in a large attack, photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is charged with escorting her back to US soil. Of course, things don’t go to plan, and the duo end up making the journey largely on foot through the quarantined region.

Made on the kind of budget that Robert Rodriguez would describe as “tight”, Monsters isn’t a tequila-flavoured Cloverfield (no matter how much the distributors wish it was), but instead a meditative journey through a battle-ravaged wasteland filled with extra-terrestrial wildlife. It’s a sort of Apocalypse Tomorrow, as Andrew and Sam slowly improvise their way up the Mexican river system, while menace lurks languidly beneath the water’s surface.

There are a few shocks and scares, but only in the same way that a National Geographic documentary has shocks and scares. These aliens are nothing more than wild creatures – fine when left to their own devices, but prone to lashing out when threatened. While their screen time is kept to a bare minimum, almost every encounter is memorable, and at least one is genuinely awe -nspiring. Apparently Edwards drew over 200 creature designs before he found one he liked, and the effort was well worth it.

At its heart though, this is a reflective road movie, albeit one where the roads are, at best, half-built. The relaxed pace results in some beautiful photography – the sun rising in the Mexican jungle, rusted tanks by the roadside, alien-infected ecology glowing in the dark. If you’ve ever wondered what Avatar might have looked like directed by Terrence Malick instead of James Cameron, this is probably as close as you’ll get, with the added bonus that, unlike Pandora, you can actually go and live in Mexico afterwards.

As a piece of imaginative virtual tourism, made on an extremely low budget, Monsters is a fantastic achievement, and sadly, it’s the execution of the project that will get most of the press. Edwards is something of a CGI whizz (he created all 250 visual effects for his BBC drama Attila The Hun in his bedroom), and he brings the full force of his MacBook Pro to bear here, adding lashings of ambient CGI (huge road signs, ruined tower blocks) that really sell his world. Filling these exotic locations with discarded, corroded military hardware gives the film a sense of epic scale, allowing your imagination to fill in the blanks – far more atmospheric than trying to depict battle scenes beyond the scope of the production.

But the story is also interesting (if a little derivative) and the two actors generate a genuine chemistry. The natural and, in places, extremely funny banter between the duo really leaves you rooting for them, even when they’re being selfish or stupid. It’s a testament to the skill of the film’s two leads that when things go slightly Hollywood in the final scenes, it all feels a little forced, particularly when the move ends on a rather abrupt note. At a push, Edwards is possibly striving to say something about immigration attitudes in the US, or even the Arab/Israeli conflict, but if he is, it’s not clear exactly what his point is.

Despite these mis-steps, this is still an exceptional feature debut, and Edwards proves himself worthy of standing shoulder to shoulder with the other young British directors (Duncan Jones, Christopher Nolan) currently redefining the sci-fi landscape. Monsters isn’t perfect, but as long as they’re expecting David Attenborough and not Roland Emmerich, intrepid cineplex explorers will be rewarded with a glimpse at that rarest of creatures: a thoroughly original sci-fi movie.

Jon Hamblin

Read our Making Of feature on Monsters (including an interview with the director) here.