MONSTERS Review

Ben Umstead, East Coast Editor
Shoegazer science fiction. Lo-fi sc-fi. Minimalist alien invasion flick. A lot has been said about Gareth Edwards' Monsters in these here parts, including today's mondo two-part interview with the man himself. I'm not sure what I could add to the chorus of praise the film has been receiving since its premiere at SXSW, but it is one I absolutely need to talk about.

Six years after alien spores piggybacked down to Earth on a crashed space probe, said alien life has adapted to the jungles, hills and rivers of Mexico, where mushroom like eggs incubate on trees and then move to the water to sprout into gargantuan squid-like creatures reminiscent of the original alien invaders of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds. The supposed monsters of the picture are rarely seen though. The aggressors are the humans, particularly the United States. America has built a wall on the border to rival that of the ancient Chinese. Add to that military bombings of the Mexican "infected zone", and adjacent areas, whenever it appears the aliens begin to migrate. Locals wear gas masks to protect themselves from the toxins left in the air after such raids.

In a country teetering on collapse, life does go on, people have adapted too, and here we find our two leads of the film. Sam (Whitney Able), a young woman who has seemingly run away from home, and Andrew (Scoot McNaily) a photographer employed by one of Sam's big shot father's publications. Because there is no one else around, Andrew is tasked with getting Sam to the coastline before the next major airstrike occurs.

The first fifteen to twenty minutes feel the most awkward; some dialog is perhaps too on-the-nose, there is something about the world that hasn't totally gelled yet in the filmmaker's hands. Nothing is disingenuous or poorly done, exposition is kept to a minimum, Edwards shows and doesn't tell as much as possible, still you can visibly see the picture struggling to find its legs.

Ferry boats are full, passports go missing, and the less than desirable route of escape becomes the only viable option... a one way ticket through the infected zone.
 
Here does the picture truly open up.

On the road, Monsters gracefully weaves in a sense of both wonder and tension, as night falls and the journey draws long; wrapping itself close around the characters of Sam and Andrew, who despite on first glance, are not so ineffectual and one-dimensional. Scarred and broken down by the past, almost catatonic in their denial, the bond they start to create is neither sappy nor forced.

Permeating from the edges ever so softly, a whisper, a shadow of dread creeps in as they move along the jungle paths with their armed escorts. One never knows what is around the next corner. The film feels wildly expansive, and gives room for theories to grip hold of the viewer, and fears to settle in with ease. More unsettling than downright scary or flighty, Edwards is a filmmaker who ruminates more on the nature of fear, rather than one who cues it for sensational and primal effect. The moment the extraterrestrial monsters make a full appearance just may be the most beautiful, emotionally engaging moment in the entire picture, and probably not for the reason one expects.

By journey's end you really feel like you've gone somewhere with Sam and Andrew.
And that is such a testament to McNaily, Able and especially Edwards as a filmmaker who has created a richly realized, fully lived-in world. And I use the word filmmaker in its full sense as Edwards wrote, directed, shot and created the visuals effects all for around a very modest budget that apparently falls on the low end of $15,000. Film success story of the year? You betcha.

But I've digressed... now to quiet down that fan boy inside me and turn back to the cinephile philosopher...

The social/political allegory that is very clearly there on paper never feels forced or spelled out in the film itself. Neither is it (and refreshingly so) the real impetus of the picture. In this regard I feel Monsters is far more successful than District 9 in its use of space aliens to talk about real world issues, and if anything it feels more akin to Bong Joon-ho's The Host in the way it suggests environmental problems though never so operatically over-the-top as that picture.

When it comes down to it Monsters behaves much more like a Monte Hellman or Wim Wenders road movie, a less chatty Before Sunrise, something of a sci-fi cousin to Alfonso Cuaron's Y Tu Mama Tambien with echoes of Claire Denis' class and race dramas though less cynical. And, to add to all that, it is without a doubt one of my favorite films of the year.

Monsters opens limited in the U.S. this Friday, the 29th, with more cities to follow. It opens limited in Canada on November 5th, and is available On Demand across North America. And be sure to check out Kurt and Peter's two-parter interview with Edwards. Round 1 with Kurt and round 2 with Peter.

 
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