SXSW 2010: MONSTERS Review

Peter Martin, Managing Editor
Languid and dreamy, MONSTERS is not your average alien invasion movie. Director Gareth Edwards, who dreamed up the story and created all the visual effects on his laptop, says that he wanted to begin where every other monster movie ends. It's a near future, post-invasion world, and it looks incredibly detailed, earthy, and organic. Judging by what's on screen, MONSTERS appears to be a big budget sci-fi spectacular. It's a remarkable achievement. 

Appearances aside, however, MONSTERS is, at heart, a tale of the relationship that develops between Andrew (Scott McNairy) and Samantha (Whitney Able). He is a photographer looking for a big break in Mexico; she is the boss' daughter, looking to return home and get married. Andrew works for a publication owned by Samantha's media mogul father, and resents being forced into service to make sure that Sam gets home safe. It should be simple enough: just take a train to the coast, make sure she boards a ferry, and get back to snapping photos. 

The big complication, of course, is that aliens invaded Earth. Six years later, the creatures have been confined to the Infected Zone, straddling the border between Mexico and the United States. Jets zoom overhead as the military bombs the Zone, which is marked by enormous fences. 

Outside the Infected Zone, life proceeds as in any other developing nation torn by war. Poverty rules the day, bodies pile up in the countryside, and the news blares out of ever-present televisions. The creatures are said to attack only at night, imposing a curfew and an air of danger upon the land as the sun sets. 

What should be a quick, one-day errand for Andrew becomes a lengthy, exhausting ordeal when the last ferry to the US leaves without Sam on board. The two are forced to buy passage through the Infected Zone, accompanied by a series of escorts, and must deal with the ever-present threat of the mysterious alien creatures. Naturally enough, the experience causes them to draw closer to each other as they navigate the strange land.

MONSTERS creates a tantalizing, evocative atmosphere in which very little that is expected takes place. If we know there are monsters in a movie, after all, we expect the movie to be about the monsters, not about a couple of young Americans who push the monsters into the background as minor cast members. Andrew and Samatha are somewhat endearing, but we don't learn enough about them to become fully invested in their survival. The 'falling for each other on the road after just meeting' scenario has been done too many times before; even though it's handled with sweetness and care, it doesn't really drive things forward.

The 'less is more' story aesthetic is normally very welcome, in that it gives credit to the viewer being able to draw his own conclusions. In this case, however, I wish just a tiny bit more information could have been doled out, to flesh things out in a more satisfying way. As it is, it feels like a dangerous but only somewhat weirder than normal road trip.

Still and all, there are individual sequences that are masterfully underplayed and linger in the memory. When the monsters attack, it's confusing and exciting. When we see the effects of the carnage upon ordinary people, the casualties of war, it's moving. When alien footage on TV has become commonplace and routine, when the populace has become accustomed to the idea that we are not alone in the universe -- and it ain't E.T. -- that's something powerful to think about. 

Languid and dreamy, MONSTERS is not your average alien invasion movie. 

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