There are many remarkable things about Monsters, but to start with the basics: it cost a mere $500,000 to make, has a professional cast of two, and is the director’s first feature. All the visual effects were made on director Gareth Edwards’ laptop at the end of the day. Edwards has won the award for Best Director at the British Independent Film Awards. And it’s one of the best films of the year. It may not have cost much to make, but every penny is visible on screen, and it looks better than a film of this budget has any right to.
Pretty much the whole of Monsters was shot on location in Mexico, which is probably where most of the money went. The photography is gorgeous, and the bleakness of the location lends itself well to the feeling of isolation which pervades much of the film.
The plot is relatively simple. A few years from now, NASA discovers the possibility of life in our solar system, and sends a probe to investigate. The probe, however, breaks up on re-entry over Mexico, with the result that half the country is now deemed an “Infected Zone”, and is populated by extra-terrestrials. The two main characters, Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) need to cross the Zone to make it back to America. The two leads have a relationship which builds over the course of the film, and have a good deal of chemistry together, which is probably helped by the fact that they’re a real-life couple.
They are the only professionals in the film; everyone else is a local hired during filming. This arguably leads to them being more convincing than they would have been otherwise, with locals, shopkeepers, and even guerillas essentially playing themselves. The plot is simple, but simple is no bad thing, especially when considering how good the dialogue and characterisation is; the fact that almost all of the dialogue was ad-libbed is a definite point in its favour here, making the conversations between Andrew and Sam that much more believable.
The effects in Monsters work is mostly very good; some of the CGI for destroyed trains and tanks looks a little fake, but all is forgiven when the audience finally sees the “creatures” (they’re never referred to as “monsters” during the film). Considering that all the CGI was made with software you can buy at PC World, being too critical seems a little unfair, especially when it becomes apparent how much effort was put into designing the creatures. At the risk of sounding redundant, Monsters houses some of the most alien aliens I’ve ever seen; there’s none of this Star Trek nonsense where all the aliens are humanoid and speak perfect English. I’m unwilling to say what they look like, as it’s one of the film’s major draws, but suffice it to say that the art design for them is fantastic, and fits very well with current scientific speculation about the possibility of life in our solar system.
The alien monsters are only glimpsed throughout most of the film, but fortunately the budget did allow for a big reveal, where a creature is finally seen in all its bizarre glory. You wouldn’t think they had been made in Adobe; the final shots of the film have a haunting, unearthly beauty that, in their own way, are more spectacular than anything in Avatar.
It’s a shame I can’t say more about this film without spoiling anything, but regardless, you really ought to go and see it. With Moon and District 9 last year, and Monstersthis year, it seems like quality science fiction is finally making a comeback, and one I’m entirely in favour of. The recent Star Trek and Avatar have been very pretty, certainly, but have lacked the big ideas that used to be a hallmark of the genre; it seems that people are trying to bring them back. Unfortunately, this is not a film that will draw the crowds, and likely won’t be in cinemas for much longer, which is all the more reason to go and see it now.