(2010) Written and Directed by Gareth Edwards; Starring: Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able; Available formats: DVD, Blu-Ray and Netflix Streaming
Shot on a meager budget of approximately $800,000, Monsters isn’t your ordinary, run-of-the mill alien invasion flick. The titular creatures often take a supporting role to the human activity, as much of the activity focuses on the aftermath of the invasion and humans dealing with a changed world. This shift in focus to the human drama enables Monsters to transcend its low budget limitations, with much of the creature action remaining off-screen and left to the viewers’ imaginations. This could have easily come off as a cheat to those expecting non-stop creature mayhem, but the deft combination of images of destruction, eerie sounds, and fleeting images of the creatures set a tense mood throughout. Even when they are not seen, their presence is clearly felt.
Monsters takes place six years after alien life has invaded Earth. Many of the specific details about how the invasion occurred are sketchy, but signs point to a crashed space probe as the likely culprit. Northern Mexico has been infected with the deadly creatures, and a giant wall has been erected by the United States to keep them from crossing over the border. The infected zone on the Mexican side is cordoned off and restricted, although numerous alien incursions into the non-infected areas seem to be frequent. U.S. warplanes continually fly overhead in an effort to help contain the creatures, but losses appear to be heavy on both sides.
Andrew (Played by Scoot McNairy) is a gung-ho photographer who’s stationed himself in the area that straddles the infected zone, with the hope of getting the perfect shot, presumably for a Time or Newsweek type of periodical. He’s diverted from his goal when a wealthy magazine publisher, who also happens to be his boss, entrusts him with bringing his daughter Sam (Whitney Able) back home to the United States. He doesn’t exactly relish his assignment, so he looks for the most expedient way to send her on her way and get back to the action. After their passports and her $5,000 ferry ticket are stolen, however, they are forced to take a more treacherous (and illegal) route, through the infected zone.
The characters slowly build momentum, moving beyond two-dimensional 20-something idealist stereotypes. Andrew isn’t particularly likable at first, seeming more selfish about his career goals than concerned with Sam’s safety. Sam, on the other hand, comes off as a bit of a spoiled rich kid with good intentions, who at once identifies with the plight of the villagers she encounters, but seems out of touch with Andrew’s more working class values. There’s an interesting exchange between the two as she comments about him profiting from others’ misfortunes, and he argues about his need to make a living. He mentions that he can get $10,000 for a picture of a dead child, but nothing for a picture of a happy child. We learn that he has a six-year-old son back in the states, but he’s now estranged from the mother who informed him that the child came from him, but he’s “not his father.” Sam becomes increasingly ambivalent about her impending wedding, which seems more like a business transaction than a marriage. When she’s forced to barter her ring in exchange for passage through the infected zone, it looks like an emancipation.
One of the ways that Monsters rises above the usual sci-fi action genre is the social commentary, which is integral, not ancillary to the plot. In an early scene Andrew asks a taxi driver why he doesn’t just get out. The cab driver replies simply “Where would I go?” adding that his family is here. Andrew takes his peripatetic lifestyle for granted, not realizing how others are simply resigned to their fate. The enormous wall that separates the United States from Northern Mexico’s infected zone with the intent of containing the alien creatures is obviously a not-too-subtle metaphor for the United States’ ineffectual attempts to stem the flow of illegal immigration. The implication is that by isolating the infection, it remains “their” problem rather than “ours.” Another theme that is reinforced throughout is the significance of money. If you have enough (or at least a valuable diamond engagement ring), you can get what you want. It’s the one true universal language.
Some of the effects shots seem reminiscent of Cloverfield or The Mist, but Monsters never really seems overly derivative. The alien creatures have their own unique life cycle and characteristics that distinguish them from their cinematic cousins. Considering the film’s budget, most of the effects look quite convincing. A few shots of probing CGI tentacles look fake, but they’re never too distracting because we are invested in the characters. In the end, it’s not the effects that make the movie, but writer/director Edwards’ emphasis on mood and character that triumphs. It will be interesting to see where his career goes from here.