Monsters was not at all what I was expecting. I somehow managed to avoid, not intentionally, all reviews but instead of an all-out Hollywood monsterfest what I saw was a tribute to the vision of British film-maker Gareth Edwards. Taking on almost every role behind the scenes bar the catering (and who knows? maybe he did that, too…), Edwards has produced a film on a ridiculously low budget that is both frightening and beautiful. On blu-ray, on which I saw it, it doesn’t just look good, it sounds superb.
Monsters is set in the near future. A probe sent to investigate possible signs of life on one of Jupiter’s moons crashes into Mexico. Six years later, half of the country is a Restricted Area, infected by giant tentacled lifeforms, monsters indeed. Journalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is charged by his employer to rescue his rebellious daughter Sam Wynden (Whitney Able), caught in a monster attack, and escort her to safety in the US. Reluctantly, Kaulder agrees to abandon his chances of getting that one shot that will show what is going on, and take Sam out of Mexico on the last ship before the area is closed for six months. The cost is $5,000. But when he loses their passports that plan is scuppered and there is just one option available. They pay to be escorted on land through the Restricted Area to the border with the US.
The journey through the jungle, some of it once cities, is a frightening and dangerous one. The immediacy of the filming (reminiscent of District 9) puts one in the thick of it with the characters. The sounds from within the trees, the glimpses of things not earth-made and the signs of destruction are powerful. Despite the many fighter planes we see overhead throughout the film, the infection is rife. The menace is enhanced by the use of TV reports, sometimes in the corner of the screen, which depict the increasing struggle to contain the problem.
There is real beauty in Monsters. Much of it is brought about by the play of light. Before Sam and Kaulder venture into the jungle, we watch them getting to know one another during a night in the city. The colours and sounds of life there are just as evocative as the later scenes in the Restricted Area, when we learn that the infection is spread through the trees. And spread in a beautiful way, with pods of light twisting around the trunks.
The beauty, however, cannot mitigate the horror of the monsters. No-one is safe, whether a grown man or a child, and we are shown both as victims. Despite the terror, there are moments in the jungle that rise above it, literally. Sam and Kaulder come across the remains of an Inca temple, a pyramid that is higher than the trees, and on it they rest and even share a laugh. They can also see the monumental wall that now divides the US from infected Mexico. It’s difficult to ignore the symbolism of this border. And yet it is also a failure.
There is a moment in the film when Sam and Kaulder watch two monsters, with flashing lights like some kind of gigantic octopus, approach one another and communicate. One might be forgiven for thinking that they are singing, like whales, and that they mate before going their separate ways. Despite the horror, the moment is undoubtedly poignant.
McNairy and Able do a fine job with this film. It is all down to them. I heard that some of the script was improvised and it has that feel of talk between two people who are learning to know one another while still having things to hide about their lives back in the safe world. The chemistry is wonderful. But then so is Gareth Edwards. Monsters was written and directed by him. He did the special effects, the cinematography and he designed it. All on a budget of well under $1 million. The film was shot on location – Mexico, Costa Rica and Guatemala – because they were affordable places and this freedom paid off enormously.
It is possible that Monsters‘ budget means that DVD and Blu-ray will deal kinder with it than the big cinematic screen. I didn’t see it at the cinema and so I can’t make a comparison but the monsters looked great (and by that I mean horrible) on the TV.
I see that Gareth Edwards is attached to do Godzilla during the next two or three years. That fills me with hope for a film I might not have seen otherwise. After Monsters I want to see every film this director and writer makes.
Extras: Commentary with Gareth Edwards, Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able; Behind the scenes featurette, Editing Monsters featurette, Monsters VFX featurette.