Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Premise: An alien species has landed in Mexico and most that country has been quarantined by Mexican and American military forces. A photo journalist (Scoot McNairy) must escort a woman (Whitney Able) from the southern half of Mexico to the United States.
What Works: Monsters is an unusual entry in the genre of alien invasion movies and there is a lot to admire about it. For one, this is a low budget picture but it does not look that way. In fact, the film is so well shot and its visual effects are so professionally done and integrated so seamlessly into the movie that it looks like something made for millions of dollars by a Hollywood studio. The filmmakers use their resources very effectively. The alien creatures are often implied and when they finally show up on-screen the filmmakers show just enough of them to convey the action; this is very focused and efficient filmmaking. The restrained style also maintains the mystery of the creatures and they don’t become overexposed in the course of the movie. Instead, the filmmakers build toward their ending, finally unveiling the creatures in an end sequence that is haunting in unexpected ways. The naturalistic style of the filmmaking also benefits Monsters because it possesses a lot of reality. The movie is often shot very plainly with natural lighting and it takes place in locations that don’t suggest artificial set construction. The environments of the picture, which have considerable scope given the means of the production, are a rebuff to the overdone production design of a lot of science fiction pictures. The story of Monsters adopts the styles and scenarios of war movies like The Grand Illusion and immigrant stories like Sin Nombre in which characters try to survive in a hostile and politically unstable environment, with science fiction elements built around them. That gives the fantastic qualities of Monsters a lot of credibility and the story plays like a travelogue as the lead characters journey by road, boat, and foot to get to their destination. Just as the setting and story suggests naturalism, the performances by the cast also omit the melodramatic beats of similar movies. Monsters keeps its emphasis on the lead characters, played by Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, and the filmmakers are focused on their relationship. The two actors play their parts with a lot of understated but authentic emotions and the emphasis on their relationship gives the story a humanistic dimension that sustains the film.
What Doesn’t: To some extent Monsters does leave the viewer wanting more. The movie has a street-level view of how nations might react to an alien invasion. This contrasts with the way political themes are usually dealt with in sci-fi movies like World War Z or Independence Day which take place at high levels of power. The street-level approach makes the drama accessible but compared with District 9, which has a similar scope, theme, and story premise, the depiction of social and political forces in Monsters is not as complex. The film is about two people trying to survive in a warzone and the movie succeeds in that respect but the film raises larger implications that it never addresses. As viewers of director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla remake may anticipate, Monsters does not have the kind of structure of most contemporary action-oriented science fiction. This is a slower and quieter movie that is really about the relationship between the two human characters. The ending has a twist but it does not pay off as well as it should. In some ways the conclusion of Monsters is reminiscent of the endings of found footage pictures and the story stops prematurely. After following the characters’ journey for ninety-minutes, the audience deserves a better sendoff than what the film provides.
DVD extras: Commentary track, deleted scenes, featurettes, interviews, and trailers.
Bottom Line: Monsters is a very good picture, one that will appeal to those who like science fiction but are tired of epic space battles. The film should also appeal to those who wouldn’t normally watch a movie like Star Wars but do enjoy relationship centered stories. Monsters may not appeal to the Transformers crowd but that’s precisely what is special about it.
Episode: #492 (May 25, 2014)