It’s an achievement in guerrilla film-making on a low budget, but the premise is a little too flustered and the film plays out more like a tour guide than much of a drama.
Writer-director Gareth Edwards makes his feature debut with Monsters, a sci-fi disaster movie of sorts that circumvents the typical formula of shaky cam and visual hubris for cheap thrills on the viewer’s end that sci-fi has descended into these days.
What he instead delivers is a close-up relationship drama between a photo journalist and his boss’s daughter as they struggle through an alien-infested portion of the US-Mexican border. While it might look a lot like another Cloverfield, the film takes place after the faecal matter hits the proverbial fan, and the disastrous action is more of a backdrop to an emotionally subtle story.
What you get is a film that’s looks like it’s trying to be District 9, and the emotional clout of characters dealing with love and death on an earthly battlefield is at times smeared by obscurity.
This works in its own favour at times – so it’s time for me to do some explaining. Edwards shot this film on location in Mexico and the US and let his actors play out many of the scenes with a bit of improv and lack of dialogue. It enhances the realism and the subtlety in the characters (as well as the loose plot), while at the same time dragging on at times.
With the whole alien plot thrown into the background as subtext for mixed metaphors (is it about US-Mexican immigration? Social separatism? The morality of passive observation?), the burden of interest lies on the two main actors, who do a great job of pulling you in – for the most part. Otherwise, the often stretched out scenes can make you lose interest, and the lack of dialogue hinders the emotional investment in the characters.
Being the writer and director means there was no middle man to molest Edwards’s vision – at the same time, there was nobody there to clean up some of the bland bits or tighten the plot.
But his accomplishments in a first feature film are extremely evident – for instance, the strategic use of CGI. With a low budget, wreckages and military and aliens were thrown into the backdrop with high quality graphics that don’t steal the show but add to the ambience and foreboding sense of alienation (no pun intended here, though it is very fitting of the plot).
And on that note, the visuals (both camera- and CGI-wise) are brilliant. If you’re not entranced by anything else, you’ll be pulled in by the on-location shots of Mexican jungles and cities. A little overdose on this does make the film look like more of a virtual tour guide of a holiday (if you can ignore all the dystopia) than a sci-fi drama, but it does make the film a little more captivating.
As critical as I’ve been, it’s important to note that this film is hitting the nail on the head when it comes to what the sci-fi genre should be delivering over the tired Cloverfield/2012 formula (even if it misses the nail a few times as it’s going in). The science fiction does not intrude on the true motives of the film in delving into human relationships (on an individual and grander scale), and in this you’re absorbed on a greater level than any no-holds-barred balls-to-the-walls action sci-fi flick.
Monsters is out now on Blu-ray from Madman Productions.