What does the term science fiction mean to you? Laser guns? Spaceships? Mad scientists and crazy experiments? If the answer’s yes, then you’ll probably find yourself bored or even irritated by Gareth Edwards’ Monsters.
Despite the B-movie trappings its title might suggest – and that it contains more than its fair share of giant aliens from outerspace – Monsters is more akin to a road movie or relationship drama than the bombastic, city-levelling event cinema of (Emmerich’s) Godzilla or Cloverfield.
Six years after a NASA probe returning from a moon orbiting Jupiter crashes over a Central American jungle, vast, octopus-like creatures stalk the area, leaving havoc in their wake. The US government, anxious to keep the aliens out of its backyard, erect an equally huge wall between north and south, and regularly despatches heavily armed jet fighters to patrol the skies.
Into this wordless stand-off between humans and aliens steps Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a free-spirited photographer keen to make his name by getting a few snapshots of the giant visitors. Before he can do so, he’s saddled with the irksome task of escorting tourist and millionaire’s daughter Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) through the Infected Zone of giant monsters to the safety of the US.
As they travel by train, boat and jeep, they encounter the trail of devastation left by both the huge, clumsy aliens and the planes that fight them, and it becomes ever more apparent which side does the most damage.
Inarguably the most quiet, mature giant monster movie yet made, Monsters is engagingly shot and filled with moments of ethereal beauty. Its location shooting and semi-improvised acting give the film a spontaneous quality, though Edwards makes sparing, restrained use of the vérité approach that’s currently in vogue. Instead, the composition and discipline of his photography recalls the work of Terrence Malick or Michael Mann at their more meditative.
The film has an atmosphere and pace that some will almost certainly find frustrating. Edwards’ film focuses more on the growing relationship between Andrew and Sam than the futile conflict that always seems to be raging somewhere far off.
The effects of the war, however, are everywhere. There are moments where Monsters is genuinely disquieting, even as it enthrals with its atmosphere and local colour. A scene early on, where the couple stumble upon a candlelit shrine to the people accidentally killed by the American bombardment of the aliens, is as poignant as it is understated.
The creatures themselves are majestic and oddly melancholy beasts, roaming jungles by night and emitting plaintive, whale-like sounds.
A curious and unique mixture of romance, road trip and science fiction, Monsters makes insightful, quiet commentary on xenophobia and insularity, and its parallels with current conflicts in the Middle East are plainly in evidence.
This isn’t to say that Monsters is preachy or unnecessarily explicit in its condemnation of modern war, rather, it’s a meditation on the short-sightedness and selfishness of human nature at its worst. As one beautiful sequence taken atop an Inca temple eloquently demonstrates, such selfishness is as old as humanity itself.
On a tiny budget, Gareth Edwards has worked miracles. Acting as director, photographer, editor, and effects designer, the British filmmaker has created a masterful debut feature from the most meagre resources, and there are moments, as vehicles are picked up and sent crashing to the ground, or a jet fighter comes bubbling up from the depths of a swamp, where it’s almost inconceivable that he could have made such a film so cheaply.
Real-life couple McNairy and Able also contribute hugely to the film’s success, displaying genuine affection and charisma in their roles. It’s their honest, unaffected performances that provide the film with the dramatic core it requires.
Monsters isn’t a film that everyone will enjoy. The antithesis of Skyline, another low-budget sci-fi movie I saw a few weeks ago, Edwards’ film is more akin to sci-fi literature than big-screen genre entertainment. Where Skyline attempted to replicate the retina-scorching spectacle of Independence Day, and fell flat on its face in the process, Monsters uses its sci-fi trappings as a mirror, providing a reflection of humanity at its darkest and, at the same time, most affecting.
It’s a film in the tradition of Tarkovsky or Kubrick rather than Emmerich or the brothers Strause, a comparison that will sound either encouraging or depressing, depending on your taste in cinema.
Monsters may lack the laser guns and spaceships that typically clutter up the genre, trappings I also love, incidentally, but in their place it has intelligence, insight, and above all, a heart. God knows, sci-fi cinema needs more films like this.
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