Those who go into writer/director Gareth Edwards' feature-film debut Monsters expecting to see the next Cloverfield are going to be sorely disappointed. This is not the monster mayhem B-movie homage you may have seen it advertised as.
What you should expect from this unique, moving and beautiful film is an experience that I can best describe as Sofia Coppola's Lost In Translation meets Steven Spielberg's remake of War of Worlds. And, as strange as that combination may sound, it absolutely works for this film.
Monsters is basically your classic story of boy meets girl meets aliens: Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is an American photographer traveling across Mexico, trying to snap shots of the tragic aftermaths of recent alien attacks. We're told that awhile back, a meteorite came crashing into Earth's orbit and broke up over Mexico; soon after that, giant, tentacled, bioluminescent aliens began to rise up from the water and wander the Northern part of the country, reproducing at rapid rates. The aliens mostly roam the Mexican jungles, but when provoked, they attack the human population and urban areas, leaving swaths of destruction in their wake.
After one such attack, Andrew finds himself tasked with locating and escorting Samantha (Whitney Able), the daughter of the man who owns the publication Andrew hopes will buy his pictures. The boss wants his daughter delivered home to her fiance, and Andrew sees an opportunity to snag the career as a photo journalist he's always hoped for, so he and Sam set out on the road together, bound for the ferry which will cart them home to America. Of course, things don't quite go as planned.
What unfolds instead is a journey across a gorgeous jungle landscape teeming with deadly aliens, while the unlikely pair are faced with experiences that slowly bring them together, even though their lives literally and figuratively hang in the balance. What unfolds for us, the viewers, is the story of two people who must guide each other through extraordinary circumstances, in order to help one another find their respective centers.
Gareth Edwards has constructed a film that achieves coherence and emotional resonance against all odds. Shot guerrilla style in several South American countries, Monsters only has McNairy and Able as its two credited actors; the rest of the "characters" in the film are all real people who were roped into playing their roles on the fly. Real events (parades, celebrations, etc...) were manipulated to fit the context of the film's narrative, bringing a sense of authenticity and realness that totally bolsters the fantastic sci-fi premise of the movie. In that sense, this film's reputation as "The most realistic monster movie ever made," is totally accurate.
Edwards also wisely invests in the natural beauty of his exotic locales, capturing the natural light and scenery that the jungles provide to those who have the eye to capture their splendor on camera. And Edwards certainly has that eye. Take out all the alien stuff and Monster is still one hell of a great travel brochure for South America.
However, the director's true forte is visual effects, and the CGI used at many points to augment the footage is nearly seamless and really does enhance the real-life atmosphere of the film. Edwards is the type of director who has the right idea about how CGI should be employed: sparingly and pointedly. None of the effects in Monsters feel frivolous or gratuitous and all the visuals being manufactured directly contribute to the visual subtext of the movie, instead of just being there for the sake of 'something cool to look at.'
The design of the aliens borrows heavily from past works, but their presence and "personality" in the film is again what separates Monsters from other creature features: the aliens aren't "evil" or "misunderstood," they're pretty much animals that roam the Earth living out the highs and lows of their life cycle - same as any other animal species, mankind included. You do get direct looks at the aliens (usually at night), and the visual effects certainly hold up; visually, the film is very smart and economical in its approach to presenting the extraordinary.
Of course, none of the visual splendor would mean anything if there weren't a story to anchor it, and while there is a loose narrative at work here (boy meets girl meets alien, remember?) the actual finer points of conveying that narrative rest solely on the film's two leads, McNairy and Able. Luckily, the two actors strike a bright spark of chemistry that slow-burns through this entire film. Both these characters are charming, likeable, flawed and complex, and seeing them slowly falling for one another feels organic and natural, never hokey or overly melodramatic. Because we care about Andrew and Sam and their budding romance, we therefore care about their safety, making the perilous moments of their journey tense and gripping - while the aliens feel like a necessary element of the story, rather than tacked-on plot devices. It's the kind of thing you hope for from quality sci-fi films.
Is Monsters for everyone? Well, I know that there is a contingent of movie fans who prefer their sci-fi monster movies to be chock-full of crazy-looking creatures and plenty of action, and those fans are going to be disappointed with the slower pace and restrained alien mayhem offered by Monsters. There is also a contingent of movie fans that love heart-stirring romantic adventures, who might be put off by a film that throws aliens into that particular mix. So while in my personal opinion this film should be something that everyone checks out, truthfully speaking, not everyone is going to respond to it positively.
In the end, Monsters is a film that borrows from several genres in order to synthesize a new movie that came together in a very unique way. It's a hard sell on paper, but this is one of those cinematic experiences that I feel is well worth the time (and ticket money) invested.
Watch the trailer for Monsters below. The film is currently available on Video On Demand (which I recommend) but will be given a limited release in the U.S. on October 29th.