If you hadn’t seen the posters or read about the plot, a movie with a name as subtle as Monsters could be understandably visualised as some kind of schlock horror film that may be either taking the piss out of horror (a la Scary Movie) or perhaps actually just some big, stupid monster flick about aliens that no one will go and see (except that mantle has been taken by Skyline at the moment.) Having read about Monsters’ guerrilla shooting style, the minimal budget, the frisson of excitement surrounding it in Empire magazine and the fact that the lead couple are, in reality, married, I was interested to see how the film would go. So, on a Saturday night in a movie theatre filled with twelve-year-old boys who were undoubtedly disappointed in the lack of boobies, we went to the flicks to see what would happen.
The film has a nicely original starting point where we are not witnessing the Attack of the Monsters, or How America Beat the Monsters with One Guy and a Well Placed Bullet, but how society is going seven years after octopus-like aliens have landed on Earth via a space probe that broke up in Central America. That area has been cordoned off as the Infected Zone, and with great big walls erected on both the Mexican and US sides of the zone, the creatures are kept isolated. There are occasional attacks outside the zone, and the film begins with the destruction of a hotel in Mexico and the unexpected pairing of attack survivor Sam (Whitney Able) with Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist pressured by his boss—Sam’s father—into helping her get home to safety. The course of a monster movie escape never runs smooth, however, and the seemingly quick journey home becomes an unnerving trip right through the Zone itself.
Monsters is not really about monsters, though you will see them and be scared. Monsters is allegorical and sentimental in equal parts. Mexico and the United States have erected enormous walls on either side of the Infected Zone, but that hasn’t stopped the aliens from breaching the defences and getting all up in society’s face. The high walls themselves are a perfect vision of terror, and supply some of what was, for me, the most chilling moments in the film. Seeing Mexico’s giant wire fence was genuinely spooky, like when I was eleven and watching Jurassic Park and waiting for the T-Rex to sidle up to his giant electric fence and eat his goaty breakfast. You kind of wanted one of the aliens to come up to the fence, all tentacles and spiky legs, tentatively touch the fence, get zapped and then run off, yelping, just to dissipate the fear of that giant structure. The reality of walls between societies is not lost on anyone, with the horrors of war made clear. Kaulder points out to Sam—who is appalled by his photography at inappropriate times—that her father pays fifty thousand dollars for a picture of a kid killed by an alien and nothing at all for a picture of a happy child.
The sentiment lies in the relationship between Sam and Kaulder, one that is by turns spiky, playful, and tender. It is easy to forget the pair are a real couple despite the chemistry they share; they seem genuinely annoyed by each other at times and then newly excited in others. It is quite sweet watching them get closer, as the slightly jerky but amiable Kaulder does his best to impress engaged rich-girl Sam, and all done with only a vague script and a large amount of ad-libbing. When Kaulder makes Sam laugh it is uplifting, and when they huddle together in fear you hope desperately that they survive. A cheesy moment in a hotel room, where a David Attenborough-type documentary on mating plays in the background while Sam and Kaulder are trying to work out where their relationship stands, was a little forced, but the rest of their scenes felt uninhibited by constraints.
It really is a movie about adapting: watching people adapt to new people and experiences, no matter how shocking or horrific; watching the world adapt to these new alpha critters on the food chain; adapting enough to a new life to be able to appreciate the beauty of the monsters themselves. The casual, documentary feel to the camera work lends itself to lots of close-ups of faces and brings the raw emotion of the characters to the fore. It also enables lots of soft-focus and outright fuzziness, especially when it comes to gore; most of the worst scenes are tempered by photographic haze. It makes the scenes both awful in what they don’t show but also more palatable for the teen market (and there was a six-year-old in the cinema, which was pretty unnerving, though he seemed more bored than scared and mostly sang to himself in the corner and ate chips.)
The music is lovely, and the scenery is mind-blowing at times and eerie in others; lush forests, amazing landscapes, hidden treasures amongst the trees, destruction, husks of buildings, rusting planes. What is most amazing is that this entirely professional-looking movie was made on a budget of only $200,000, which, well, isn’t an amount to sniff at, (grumble about housing prices) but in film terms, it can be the cost of a single explosion. Few of the cast are actors, just given an outline of the scene and filmed from there. It makes the film so much more natural and believable, a down-home gritty reality instead of a shiny surreal world that $500,000,000 will get you. (Yes Avatar, I’m looking right at you and shaking my head, sighing.) Director Gareth Edwards also wrote the story, was the cinematographer, and did the special effects himself—an A+ effort when you see them. The critters themselves are possibly not as perfectly lit as they could have been if another zero had been whacked onto the budget, but are still believable, completely incredible and, as they occasionally make their own light source, forgivable.
Less forgiving is the one irritating monster movie flaw that Jurassic Park 3 started with that stupid dinosaur that ate the mobile phone: creatures sneaking up silently behind someone to deliver a shock but spending every other moment walking around the land causing the earth to shake and bone-chilling thuds to be heard from miles away. Hundred-metre-high octopi are not the same as the bad guy in Scream. They cannot sneak. They do not need to sneak. They have the upper hand. Eight of them, even. (Boom-tish.)
In summary: Exceeds Expectations. It’s not perfect, but it’s a great three-and-a-half star movie that is touching while still being scary enough to be a proper, pacy monster movie.