Writer/director Gareth Edwards made a big splash in 2010 when he released his first feature-length film Monsters, which he reportedly made for a paltry $500,000. Working with a crew of just seven people that traveled by van around across five countries in only three weeks, Edwards had high ambitions – his mission was to create an authentic romantic story shot against the backdrop of a monster movie. In the end, while Monsters has its problems, Edwards largely succeeded in conveying both an aesthetic sense of beauty while delivering a core message that encourages the audience to think about contemporary social issues.
Monsters follows a photographer named Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) who receives a call from his boss a the beginning of the film. The boss asks Kaulder to escort his daughter, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), out of Central America and into the US. What’s the catch? Massive aliens populate the Northern border of Mexico, making the trip a constant fight for survival.
As a monster movie, Monsters does manage to elicit a few credible thrills out of the audience. However, I must caution that this is most assuredly not Godzilla – the actual “monsters” in Monsters are distinctly relegated to setting the scene for the romantic drama that unfolds between the leads. In addition, the entire plot is told within the context of a socio-political international scenario, and the focus is hardly ever on the aliens themselves.
I appreciate that Edwards resists the urge to use the allegory he created in Monsters in a heavy-handed manner. The idea of the wall covering the border between Mexico and the United States that is meant to keep the “aliens” out of America is a bit obvious, but he manages to show us without telling us about the situation on multiple occasions. Instead of hammering it over our heads, the final effect is a gentle-yet-poignant commentary on immigration. The sentiment is so subtle, in fact, that one could easily choose to ignore this aspect of Monsters and still find the film entirely enjoyable and complete. However, to those of us who wish to take the title of the movie at its double meaning, issues such as the folly of international isolationism can be found bubbling just below the surface.
Despite sometimes stilted line delivery (which may or may not be a fault of the screenwriting itself), the principle actors manage to hold their own and convincingly portray a growing relationship as Monsters progresses. Owing perhaps to the fact that Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able were in fact a couple before the film started, their chemistry is strong. All other characters were non-actors, but it isn’t terribly noticeable and their screen time is kept largely to a minimum in any case.
My absolute favorite part of this movie, and what resonated with me long after the credits rolled, was how gorgeous the locales were. From rolling green jungles to old Amerindian ruins, Andrew and Samantha’s journey is at the very least a treat for the eyes. I can’t even tell you if the cinematography was excellent or not because I’m having a hard time figuring out if it’s possible to get a bad shot of Central American landscape. Either way, it’s gorgeous.
Due to budgetary restrictions, the effects are understandably sparse and fairly spotty up close – but when used to promote the scenery, as in the final scene, the imagery can be breathtaking. The aliens on display are fascinating and when you are finally treated to a full-on look at their anatomy, I was intrigued by the originality of their design. I am a sucker for creative creature creation, and I can tell you that the filmmakers did not skimp on this point.
In the end, Edwards crafted an incredibly beautiful and altogether surprising film that forsakes the standard tropes of big-budget thrillers for the simpler tropes of romantic dramas. While the acting is not always flawless, the real-life blossoming relationship between the two main actors lends an indelible sense of realism and emotion to the proceedings. I enjoyed Monsters and I would wholeheartedly recommend it. However, I must still say this with the caveat that those expecting pacing and high-octane thrills associated with other monster movies will be quite disappointed. Monsters is creature feature for the thinking person.
Verdict: Movie Win