December 17, 2010


First time feature film director Gareth Edwards is someone who obviously comes from the Robert Rodriguez approach to filmmaking; in that he’s a multi-hat wearing one-man band. He's the film's writer, director, cinematographer and special effects lead. And his debut film is really something special: a film of ideas, relationships, subtlety and heart. Oh, and great fuck-off aliens.

The story of Monsters is deceptively simple: set 6 years after alien life-forms have crash landed in Mexico; the whole area has now been quarantined as an “infected zone”. The American military regularly bomb the zone, in the hopes of containing the creatures. In Central America, US photo-journalist Andrew Kaulder has to babysit his boss’ daughter Sam as she tries to get home to America. The initial plan, to skirt the quarantine zone by boat, goes awry and the two unlikely travelling companions have to traverse through the decidedly more dangerous infected zone.

The easy comparison to make is with last year's low budget alien sci-fi District 9. And while there are indeed similarities (the affect of resident extra-terrestrials, low budget but awesome visual effects, improvised dialogue) I think Monsters is altogether subtler and carries a different tone to it altogether. The better comparison, to my mind at least, is to Douglas Jones' Moon; it carries a similar atmosphere and both are, essentially, two-handers. But heck, if we're talking comparisons you could also say Monsters is a small budget, low-fi Jurassic Park. Really, it's part of a larger trend; a trend that includes D9, Cloverfield and Moon, for low budget thought-provoking sci-fi. Not only have all these films been made on considerably lower budgets (and outside the usual Hollywood studio system) they also all carry big ideas and really great character work. While I think the the big flashy Will Smith brand of sci-fi certainly has its place, I much prefer the smaller, more intelligent sci-fi films. I'm a sci-fi geek, and I prefer to get my brain engaged with what's going on rather than just sitting back looking at all the pretty effects and explosions.

The visual effects in Monsters are indeed impressive (even more so for the whole film being done under $1mil!) and they work because of their scarcity; they're only used when absolutely necessary. But the real visual shock comes from the smaller moments captured by Edwards: images like Kaulder and Sam looking down on a Mexican church filled with thousands of candles for the dead, or rusted out boats abandoned on riverbanks. The performances from the leads (the only professional actors in the cast) are understated and real. Scoot McNairy as the photog Kaulder is, well... he starts out as a bit of a dick. But, thanks in part to McNairy, you warm to him their trek progresses and Kaulder changes. Whitney Able as the boss' daughter Sam thankfully doesn't play as a useless heiress/daddy's girl. Thanks to her and Edwards, she's a more well rounded character than that. As opposed to Kaulder, she actually speaks the language; she's the one taking the lead in a lot of situations. She has a vulnerability and more than a hint of sadness. But Able gives her an inner strength. Basically, these are two people who, under normal circumstances would never have met. And they have to make this strange, wondrous, perilous journey together.

While the similarly low budget, and alien themed, Skyline has been sucking up all the headlines and advertising space (and bad reviews) the far superior Monsters is already out of cinemas. This is one of those great sci-fi films, with great characters and ideas; the best have ideas that encourage other ideas. It used to be you needed a huge budget to make a sci-fi films with aliens or robots or whatever... but thanks to films like Monsters that's no longer the case.

Edwards has made a bold, striking, simple and beautiful film. There are brilliantly evocative shots that are never overstated and the tale is a simple road movie about two unlikely people growing close to one another. Edwards moves effortlessly from a scene of taut terror directly into something of striking and ephemeral beauty. Monsters is a gem of a film and one I’m looking forward to visiting again.


  1. Skyline was god awful. Hilariously so.

    Monsters... I wasn't as blown away by it as Dave was, or yourself. I went into it blind deliberately, and in retrospect wished I'd known more about it beforehand, for once. I just wasn't taken in by the characters. This may be the acting, but while the film looked gorgeous and I loved the premise, I didn't feel anything for them. I wasn't rooting for them.

    The co-existing element was what I took from it, that these creatures only attack when provoked by loud noise (or shot at!), and that human life must adapt, rather than trying to blow it all up. I wonder if that would really happen, and I doubt it. America would blast the crap out of it. :)

  2. I was astonished to find out, after seeing the film, how little, in relative terms, it cost to make. What CGI there is, is used brilliantly and sparingly - no Avatar overload here.

    Loved this film and I'm really looking forward to seeing what Edwards does next. As an aside, it makes for an interesting counterpoint to Machete, in that both films touch on US immigration policy, though Monsters does so with a great degree more subtlety.