Originality is often a killer to marketing gurus. Without the ability to shoehorn a film into a certain genre or proclaim it to be “the next [insert classic film name here]”, films can tend to be marketed to the wrong audience or just not marketed at all. So it’s a brave choice for anyone who tries something different but thankfully for us, it was a choice Gareth Edwards was willing to make with his feature film debut. Try to categorise Monsters and you’ll find yourself leaping from road movie to romance to sci-fi with solid reasoning for each; fortunately for the marketing team, Monsters has received enough buzz on the festival circuit to not have to be the next something but instead becomes a film that “everyone is talking about” and for good reason.
Similar to District 9’s setting, Monsters takes place in a world where sub-terrestrial creatures have already landed six years prior as a result of a crashed space probe. An infected, quarantined zone has been set up between the US and Mexico but the military still struggle to contain the ‘monsters’, especially during their migration season which has come along early this year. Photo journalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is set the task of ensuring the daughter of his boss, Sam Wynden (Whitney Able), catches the final ferry back to the US but things don’t go as planned.
If you’ve heard anything about Monsters, it’s probably to do with its ridiculously small budget. Filmed for a budget "that would usually just cover the catering on an average Hollywood film for one day" (Allan Niblo - Vertigo Films co founder), Edwards has made every cent count as the end product is astonishing. With a background in special effects, it should come as no surprise that the monsters themselves are flawless – even the final reveal at the end is stunning and not disappointing like so many monster films that originally just give you glimpses – but the most breathtaking aspect is the gorgeous cinematography. One particular standout shot is when we’re given a wide shot of the ‘Wall’ that separates the two countries which is just extraordinary in its scale.
This also extends to the film’s main set pieces whenever Andrew and Sam run into the monsters with each sequence delivering on the thrills and ramping up the tension. The sequences are no doubt helped in their effectiveness by the overall slow-paced, gentle road movie tone meaning that every time an attack happens, it blind sides you but they still have to be crafted well to make that impact. It is here that the special effects, in particular the design of the monsters, helps as their bodies act like LEDs with intermittent bursts of light whenever their mood changes; it leads to an awe-inspiring shot during the film’s climactic scenes as one of them comes into view against the dark background resulting in a sharper intake of breath than most horror movies manage.
Casting two relative unknowns in the lead roles was another risky move by Edwards, especially if you factor in that they are our only two mainstays and also that he required them to improvise most of their lines, but it’s another decision that doesn’t fail. Both of them are immensely likeable and their on-screen chemistry is electric, no doubt helped by the fact that they are a real-life couple. While, at times, you may feel during the film that you’re enjoying their characters’ journey but not necessarily becoming involved in it, certain moments lead you to realise just how invested you are like when Andrew has a heartbreaking call to his son and a speck of dust just happens to get in your eye at that same point.
There will be some critics who say that the storyline is a touch too slight for Monsters to be a classic but they would be nitpicking; the experience of the film is about following the journey of the two leads and not what goes on around them in the world. Monsters is a subtle, smart and genuinely exciting film where nothing is conventional or unfolds as you’d expect, especially the ending which has a well-crafted ambiguity to it that will encourage discussion. People often complain about the lack of originality in films nowadays with every other film being a remake or sequel or a sequel of a remake; Monsters is none of those and so much more instead which makes it a must-see for any true film fan.