Don’t believe everything you’re told. That’s the message of Monsters in more ways than one. A concerted marketing push would have us believe that Gareth Edwards’ debut feature is this year’s District 9 (which, in turn, was last year’s Cloverfield), a big, bad alien invasion movie made on a shoestring.
And in some ways it is. Shot for a reported £100,000, Monsters is further proof that the most exciting sci-fi comes not from the big coffers of Hollywood, but from industrious and impoverished geeks.
It opens with a startling sequence too, a smash and grab action set piece that would have you believe you’re getting exactly what was hinted at. Shot in near darkness through a green filtered shaky-cam, it’s pure shock and awe, fleeting but perfect in execution and set up. There are aliens. There are men with guns. And the two shall meet.
And from there, Edwards goes the other way. But let’s rewind a little bit. Because Monsters is a film about big aliens. It just chooses to move things on a bit, planting us in a world where aliens invaded some seven years ago. So, where this year’s Skyline went for the ‘look out Donald Faison from Scrubs, it’s aliens!’ effect, Monsters has them as just another hazard to overcome.
Signs warning of their presence adorn the ravaged streets of South America, news reports monitor skirmishes with army troops, and, rather amusingly, duck and cover-style infomercials warn children how to stay safe.
Through this climate Edwards plots a simple course. Scoot McNairy’s news photographer is tasked with escorting the boss’ daughter (Whitney Able) back home safely. All that stands in their way is what lies within the infected zone.
After a terrific opening salvo, Monsters stumbles a little bit in mapping out its trajectory along this journey. Edwards’ ear for dialogue is a little too rooted in movie speak, and so his characters trade in clipped conversations (“This is the boss’ daughter! I’ve been waiting three years for this!”) that don’t always ring true.
But that’s all it is, a little stumble. Once it finds its feet, Monsters feels breathtakingly raw, free of all the sheen and polish that makes most big, bad alien movies beautiful to look at, but lacking any soul. Filmed on the hoof with just a four-man crew and locals filling the supporting player parts, it feels like the type of alien invasion movie Walter Salles would make. Monsters takes place in a world so vividly drawn that you can’t help but feel the history behind it.
Edwards might reap plaudits for his technical prowess (and rightly so. Monsters’ aliens look the work of a major effects house rather than one man in his bedroom), but it’s his handling of story and atmosphere that’s most impressive. He fills in the backstory, not with banal exposition, but with cutaways to the devastation visited upon villages and families. It’s camera as – get this! – storytelling device, not just something to point at things that blow up. Michael Bay, take note.
So, what of Monsters‘ selling point, the aliens themselves? For the most part, Edwards adopts the Cloverfield approach of little by little giving us brief glimpses of them in tightly choreographed action beats and via TV reports playing tantalisingly in the background.
And here’s the thing: Monsters isn’t another District 9, even if it does relocate that film’s theme to another continent. There’s no crunching, bullet-laden set piece waiting around the corner, no Cloverfield-style destruction we’re being led to.
As much as the marketing might be pushing it as a close relative to those films, Monsters actually harks back to 1980s-era Steven Spielberg and James Cameron. Edwards wears his fanboy devotion for the former firmly on his sleeve. There’s a Jurassic Park-like assault on jeeps, a father-son dynamic that’s quietly touching without even showing us the son, and a nice nod in the film’s final moments to a line from one of Spielberg’s most iconic films. And for all its alien hullabaloo, Monsters is a Cameron-esque love story, again, in more ways than one. Hell, there’s even subtext to nibble on if you get bored of that.
For a film made on the barest of bones, it’s incredibly rich and layered. Perhaps not the slam-bang extravaganza you might be expecting, but a thrilling journey nonetheless, and told with a stunningly assured touch from a debut filmmaker. Monsters looks like it should have a budget with two more zeros on the end, yet it’s what’s behind the incredible effects that excites the most.
Edwards’ film has a scope and ambition that’s exhilarating, an invention that would have even The Terminator-era Cameron taking notes. Where does he go from here? Who knows, except maybe Edwards, of course. But that next film can’t come soon enough.Read our first review of Monsters here.
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