Monsters is, in many ways, the anti-Skyline. The latter, released last month and directed by The Brothers Strause (best known for their special effects work and helming AVP2), involved a plethora of egotistical, spoiled rich kids fighting to survive an alien invasion in L.A. Made for a modest (by Hollywood science fiction standards) $10million, it did boast some nice effects, but lacked brains – ironically what its otherworldly tourists were harvesting. For that ailment then, might I prescribe Monsters, the debut feature from Brit director Gareth Edwards, also a dab hand at computer graphics.
The film’s opening title informs us that a NASA probe, that was sent to detect and collect samples of alien life on Mars, has crashed in Mexico upon re-entry. The site of the crash has been quarantined as an ‘Infected Zone’. The samples have mutated into gigantic aliens that now roam the region. Caught in the middle is photographer Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) who has been instructed by his boss, owner of the newspaper he works for, to find his daughter Sam (Whitney Able) and escort her safely back to the U.S. As is so often the case, it’s not as easy as all that.
First of all their train is stopped short of the border owing to damage on the tracks. They are then charged an extortionate fee to get the last ferry out of Mexico and subsequently – by an unlikely plot contrivance involving a one night stand and a stolen passport – are forced to trek through the ‘Infected Zone’ where they encounter the film’s creatures and feelings for one another.
Just like Let the Right One In was a coming-of-age story that happened to have vampires, Monsters plays like a road movie that incidentally features aliens; it’s Badlands with bugs. So, we get philosophical questions asked of Kaulder, who has been sent to the zone to snap the aliens and the havoc they wreak. Sam questions, “Doesn’t it make you feel bad that you need something bad to happen to profit?” When he comes across a dead child in the street, he is torn between taking the picture and collecting his pay cheque, and what is morally the right thing to do. As with most road trips, the physical journey isn’t as important as the meta-physical one.
Lest it not be overlooked that this is all taking place in an area between Mexico and the U.S. It’s no accident that Edwards (who shot most of the film without a script) has the NASA probe crash here, creating the creatures, with the American government building a vast border wall to keep them out. The debate over Mexican illegal immigrants rages on in America so that when, in a similar fashion to District 9, the film creates very literal illegal aliens stalking the U.S. border, it should be understood that a political point is being made regardless of if it was intended or not.
And these giant metaphors are beautifully realised. Part Starship Troopers, part The Mist (or oversized jellyfish depending on your perspective), the film’s supporting cast glow and contort in a mesmerising dance that exhibits their hostility and beauty. What’s more astounding is that they, along with the rest of the film’s special effects, cost less than $200k. It’s an exciting time for science-fiction, and film in general, when films such as Monsters are being made for next-to-nothing but retain a grandness and quality that many multi-million dollar blockbusters just don’t possess. Edwards has spawned a monster movie with heart and brains that deserves to re-coup its meagre budget, and then some.