Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able
We all need another pseudo-intellectual alien invasion thriller like we need holes in our heads. Whenever I just so happen to catch a trailer for an upcoming film that deals with the subject, I either roll my eyes and sigh heavily or grit my teeth in warranted frustration. This isn’t meant to discredit some of the more recent successes in treading through this territory, as last year’s District 9 borderline reinvented the sub-genre and left many pleasantly surprised, myself included. With an exceedingly low budget and little to offer up in the realm of effective marketing, Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, to me, looked like another exercise in disaster if the writer/director in question didn’t play his cards just right. Fortunately, a few fresh ideas in addition to an appealing setting and appropriate low-budget feel transform this modest production into something slightly above average, even if it falls a bit short where it most certainly shouldn’t have.
Usually, when an exceptionally low budget comes into play with any type of film, a certain emphasis should be placed on elements that don’t directly rely on eye-popping visuals and mammoth set pieces. In this respect, Monsters makes use of its exotic Mexican setting in the most literal sense, filming everything on-site and supposedly using real-life locals as the film’s extras. As appealing as this tidbit of info is, the believable atmosphere this approach crafts in its wake can only carry the film so far, thus relying on an engaging script teeming with tension and intrigue that’s fit to hold our interest for roughly 90 minutes.
Seeing as Monsters isn’t your typical balls-out CGI spectacle, a lack of screen time for the creatures themselves is to be expected, therefore branding the entire film as “boring” would be both ignorant and unfair. If anything, the deliberate choice to maintain the two central characters, Andrew and Samantha, as the film’s main focal point serves to add a superb air of tension to each and every situation they find themselves in, forcing us to be ready for any and everything as the duo starts their trek through the dreaded “Infected Zone” back to the United States. The circumstances surrounding said sojourn and the invasion as a whole are also surprisingly plausible, proving that intelligence is more valuable than gaudy, obnoxious nonsense, whether some viewers may agree or not.
Outside of the premise itself, Monsters begins to falter by not quite knowing how to expand on it while introducing a questionable romance subplot. I’m normally a sucker for stuff like this, and even though a subdued, sufficient sense of humor permeates the film’s lighter moments, Andrew and Samantha just aren’t all that interesting as people. Edwards’ script does a fine job in humanizing both of them, delving as deep into their lives as is necessary to allow one to sympathize with their plights, Andrew’s especially, yet the uneasy romance that begins to bloom between the two is just plain odd and seems to exist for the sake of adding a bit of fluff to a story that didn’t need any. Even the dialogue, while interesting enough, doesn’t really reach its full potential and remains unbearably thin whenever some actual insight is warranted from both parties.
In the end, it’s easy to appreciate what Monsters does right more than what it fails to do effectively. A stellar premise and the ability to cope with an absurdly low budget in the most economical and worthwhile sense elevates Gareth Edwards’ foray into familiar territory to noticeably new heights, even if its inability to overcompensate for what it purposefully lacks prevents it from being something much more. With two charming leads and just enough screen time for the creatures themselves, Monsters comes off as believable as can be and further benefits from great pacing and stunning locales, even if the mostly cheesy subplot doesn’t achieve the desired effect. If I can take away anything from this experience, it’s that there’s still originality to be found within even the most hackneyed of formulas, even if the execution is just a little off.