There’s been quiet buzz building about Gareth Edwards’ Monsters. Rumors abound about its budget, with some estimating it to be as low as $15,000. The cast is made up of either unknowns or little-knowns. It’s being described as “the Latin American District 9,” meaning that it’s made by a heretofore unknown film maker on a limited budget and it involves aliens. Though there are some similar thematic and allegorical elements, the comparison is inapt and oversimplified. The truth is, none of that really matters. Monsters is an outstanding film all on its own, a statement I’d freely make whether it cost $15,000 or $150,000,000.
Brief title cards in the beginning quickly set the scene for Monsters — a NASA probe has crashed in Mexico, and whatever it was carrying has led to the birth of gigantic, mysterious monsters that cause massive amounts of damage. Northern Mexico is effectively quarantined on both sides of its border, as the US and Mexican governments try to figure out how to resolve the problem of the encroaching creatures.
The allegory is not a difficult one to discern.
The film focuses on a world weary American photojournalist, Andrew (Scoot McNairy, yes, Scoot), who is charged by by his employer to get his daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) out of Mexico and back into the US safely. The reluctant and recalcitrant Andrew eventually gamely takes to the task, but as is the way of things, their plan to catch the ferry is derailed and they’ve no choice but to pay glorified coyotes to take them through what is ominously called “the infected zone,” to navigate the winding rivers, dense jungles, armed forces, and of course, the titular monsters.
That journey is a fascinating one, and what’s perhaps most striking about Monsters is that it is very much not a monster movie, but more an emotionally-based sociopolitical road movie — that has monsters in it. The film is more about Andrew and Samantha’s characters, how they interact with each other, how their feelings and emotions — not just about each other, but about the world around them — evolve and change, just as the world is fretfully trying to evolve around these new lifeforms. It’s a carefully thought-out, introspective piece that takes its look at interpersonal relationships and geopolitics with surprising gentleness. While the immigration and xenophobic themes are fairly obvious, they’re tackled with a deft subtlety and aren’t even particularly critical, merely contemplative.
It’s complemented by strong performances by the two leads, which is just as well considering that they bulk of the film focuses solely on them (in fact, no other cast members are even listed on its IMDB entry). Able’s Samantha is a bit of a wide-eyed ingenue, but she’s sharp enough to have a piercing insight into Andrew’s cynicism and to have a greater understanding of ramifications of the events around them. Andrew is the more complex character, but not enough to overshadow his co-star. The two of them play off of each other nicely, and serve as excellent narrative foils for the film’s greater purpose.
Production-wise, if it was indeed filmed on $15,000, it’s the best 15 grand that’s ever been spent. Filled with lush, haunting music that never feels forced or overwrought, between that and its ambient sound effects, it’s quite the aural feast. Visually, it’s unquestionably beautiful. The cinematography (it’s filmed on location in Mexico, allegedly often without permits to save costs) is vibrant and lovely, and it’s that beauty that’s so intrinsic to making the scenes of urban and rural devastation so effective. Using the rolling hills and sun-drenched skies as a palette, it then drops ruined buildings, ravaged bodies and wrecked townships into the foreground to create some remarkable and stirring contrasts.
As for the monsters themselves, they’re used sparingly, and rightfully so. They’re barely seen, hinted at and seen as bizarre, colossal visual whispers. Few have survived to see them whole, and even Andrew has only seen their dead parts after the military’s numerous air raids and bombing runs have killed them, creating just as much devastation as the creatures themselves. You get a good feel for their enormous size and baffling shapes — something huge and distinctly alien, all ponderous legs and massive tentacles, ominous and strangely arresting — without overusing them, thus allowing more focus to be placed on the film itself and not its effects.
Gareth Edwards is now being flooded with offers, and it’s well-deserved. Monsters is a small film, to be sure, that takes on large subject matter — both metaphorical and literal — and handles it with expert skill and an honest aplomb. The minute cast hits their notes just right, and the film succeeds in being thoughtful but not preachy. Take all of the subtext out of it, and you’re still left with an impressive film about people and creatures that would stand on its own. But taken as a whole, it’s a remarkable achievement deserving of its groundswell of accolades.
TK writes about music and movies. He enjoys playing with dogs, raising the dead, and tacos. You can email him here.