Let me begin by telling you what Monsters is not. It is not Skyline, this year’s entry into Hollywood’s annals of over-marketed bad ideas. It is not District 9, last year's big low budget sci-fi success. Monsters, like great indie classics such as Before Sunset and Lost in Translation, uses a fantastical setting to tell an essentially human story. It starts when the horror story is long over and other stories begin to take precedence. Monsters jumps off from a classic sci-fi springboard: a space shuttle finds alien life on one of Jupiter’s moons, then crash lands on Earth, leading to alien invasion and widespread disaster. The film picks up six years after the threat has been ‘contained,’ and shows how a world adapts to its new reality, where quarantine zones and seasonal ‘infections’ disrupt daily lives in multiple ways. The actual containment is achieved by a clumsy metaphor for US immigration policies, a gargantuan stone wall separating the United States from Mexico. Following a new breakout of infections, a wealthy businessman enlists photographer Andrew Calder (Scoot McNairy) to bring his stranded daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), back home to her fiancé. While they had the money to get back by sea and completely avoid the infected zone, a Random Plot Contrivance leads to the theft of all of their money, and so this improbable couple set off into the danger zone.
What makes Monsters unique is its intent to find moments of true beauty amongst the devastation and horror. Traveling through the most dangerous infected zones in Mexico, Edward's camera pays loving attention to our first encounters with the alien offspring, which have a gorgeous bioluminescence that calls Avatar to mind. Filmed in various parts of South America, director Gareth Edwards takes full advantage of the exotic locales available to him. The use of a cheap ‘pro-sumer’ video camera makes you feel that you’re right there with Calder and Sam. The camera moves with glorious close-ups of indigenous flora and fauna, making maximum use of available light. Apart from the two leads, all the roles are taken by locals conscripted to join the film as it went along. This leads me to one of my chief complaints about the film: Edwards allow his actors to improvise dialogue, and this often feels, well, improvised. Not all of it rings true, and many of the ‘observations’ made, especially by Sam, feel inane or trite. But this isn’t a talky film, so it doesn’t detract from the overall experience. The monsters themselves don’t actually appear until the final ten minutes of the film. In my favorite scene, Calder and Sam have finally made it into Texas and are waiting for the military to retrieve them from a gas station in the middle of nowhere. When a monster finally appears in full view, so big that even fear seems pointless, terror transforms into curiosity. Calder and Sam know they can’t win in a fight, so instead they wait and watch as one alien meets another in a sort of interpretive dance. This moment of unexpected humanity brings tears to our heroes’ eyes, and to ours. Much has been made of how Edwards essentially created all the CGI effects on his own, on his computer, rather than relying on green-screen. Somehow, with an overall budget circling $15,000, he has managed to create one of the most visually engaging films of the year, where you feel that the only thing separating our reality from theirs is a screen.