Whether he intended to or not, writer/director Gareth Edwards has crafted a movie in Monsters that is all about defying expectations. It’s an alien invasion film that avoids the usual pitfalls of the alien invasion genre. There are no massive scenes of aliens or spaceships laying waste to everything in their path. The aliens are barely glimpsed until the final ten minutes of the film. There are no scenes where people of different races, religions, or socio-economic classes put aside their differences to fight back in a rousing display of violence inflicted upon the invaders. All of these choices about how not to approach the genre are refreshing. What’s even more of a nice change-of-pace comes from what the film is: a quiet character study. Much like last year’s District 9, Monsters takes place in an alternate universe where aliens landed on Earth several years ago. Here, they landed in northern Mexico, which has become known as the infected zone. The aliens are gigantic, tentacled beasts that basically keep to themselves, only coming into contact with people when they migrate and their paths bring them into small towns. These encounters usually end with devastation as large portions of the towns are destroyed and many people are killed. Some of this damage and loss of life is the fault of the aliens, and some of it is collateral damage caused by joint Mexican-U.S. military troops assigned to fight the aliens.
Into this chaos goes Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photographer working for a huge media conglomerate. He’s busy photographing the aftermath of the latest battle in a Mexican village when he’s ordered by the owner of the media conglomerate to find and accompany his daughter, Sam (Whitney Able) back to her home in Los Angeles. When their tickets and passports to take a ferry to the Baja peninsula are stolen, they are forced to take a guided trek through the infected zone to reach the United States.
While that setup sounds like a survival thriller waiting to happen, the film is actually a road movie about two quietly desperate people running away from their real lives. Kaulder has a son that he didn’t know about until the child was few years old. The mother allows him to see the boy, but doesn’t want Kaulder to tell him the truth for fear of confusing him. He goes along with the lie, but as the film progresses, it becomes obvious that the situation is eating him alive. As a result, he spends his life skulking about the wreckage that has become the areas along the border of the infected zone, avoiding the situation that awaits him at home. Sam is engaged to be married but doesn’t want to go through with the wedding. Why she was in Mexico is never made clear, but it’s intimated that she may have run away.
As they make their way through the infected zone, Kaulder and Sam bond with each other as they survive the occasional harrowing attack by the aliens. As they get closer, they draw out details from each other that fill in some of the blanks of their back stories, but thankfully, are allowed to keep just as much hidden.
This is the first feature from Gareth Edwards. Prior to the film, he was a visual effects artist, a point worth the raising only because most effects artists that make the leap to directing do so through their taking the reins for some special effects extravaganza. Often these films are hollow spectacles, devoid of an interesting story or characters. Monsters is the exact opposite. While he pulls off some impressive shots of the aliens in the third act climax, Edwards largely avoids using his effects background as a crutch. He instead concentrates on his two leads, letting the impressive, sympathetic performances by McNairy and Able carry the story. The film thus is leisurely paced, allowing the camera to linger on the people and destruction that Kaulder and Sam encounter on their journey. This lends an apocalyptic mood to the film that is more effective than any of the big-budget destruction on display in films like Independence Day or Cloverfield because it keeps the action on a more intimate level. It’s hard to believe in an entire city being destroyed by aliens, but a few buildings in a small village? Despite the elemental ridiculousness of the alien invasion genre, that destruction is believable and all the more horrific.
Monsters isn’t a perfect film. There is some forced material about the current illegal immigration situation (the U.S. government has built a wall along the border to keep out the aliens) that feels out of place with its lack of subtlety. But it is a very good film. By focusing on a believable world in the wake of an unbelievable event, Edwards has crafted a film that is as personal as it is ambitious.
Matt Wedge is a film reviewer, New Haven resident, and co-founder of The Parallax Review, a totally awesome film criticism site.