It’s a sign of the improvements in technology that whereas once a science fiction film with a minimal cast and crew was likely to result in something akin to Roger Corman’s Day the World Ended, it can now produce a Monsters. Writer-director Gareth Edwards headed off to Mexico with his actors, Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy, a rough idea for how his screenplay was going to play out and the necessary fixers and security. Scenes were partially improvised with whatever locals (credited as “featured extras”) would participate and the film was then created in editing and post-production, at which point Edwards was able to add the various visual effects. The most remarkable thing, perhaps, is just how well he’s pulled things off. Monsters feels seamless, never once revealing its low-budget origins and, indeed, has earned its director a job at the helm of the latest Hollywood attempt at tackling the Godzilla franchise.
The premise is a simple one, so much so that Edwards is able to deal with it courtesy of some pre-credits titles. Six years ago alien life was discovered in outer space prompting NASA to send out an exploratory probe. Successful in obtaining samples, it fared less well in re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere and broke up over Mexico. The samples became creatures, most of Mexico was cordoned off as an ‘infected zone’ and mating season is about to begin as the film opens. The human interest angle is provided by McNairy’s photojournalist and Able as his boss’s daughter. McNairy is there in hunt of the big scoop; her motivations are less immediately clear. Nonetheless he is charged with escorting her out of the country as soon as possible, though of course - this partially being a horror/science fiction flick - things don’t go exactly to plan…
I say partially as Edwards has ideas beyond simple genre thrills. He delivers an early sight of the titular monsters in the opening - albeit through a grainy night vision camera - to let us know exactly what these characters are facing, namely a cross between an octopus and the creatures which populated Frank Darabont’s adaptation of The Mist. But from thereon in they become relegated to the background: glimpsed on the television news or represented via various signs, graffiti and painted murals (all added in post-production). In part this harks back to the likes of Corman’s Day the World Ended and, indeed, the budgetary restrictions of those films which prevented a proper reveal until the final act. Of course, Edwards no doubt had similar restrictions, yet he uses them far more to his advantage than Corman and his ilk did. Whereas the B movie standard was poor acting and soap operatics as a means of sustaining the running time until the creature put in an onscreen appearance (although, of course, this is a massive generalisation and ignores the numbers of films which did transcend their humble origins to produce richly satisfying works), Monsters actually contains some depth.
As such the film should be considered as much a road movie and a romance as it should a horror flick or science fiction. The focus throughout is on the characters and their developing relationship as well as the journey they undertake. Certainly the latter involves various close shaves and the threat of continual attack, but there are ramifications beyond this. Just as District 9 (a film which has prompted comparisons to Monsters) had aspects of political metaphor - most notably relating to apartheid - so too Edwards draws on contemporary issues to enhance his narrative. There are undercurrents of war zones, immigration, sensation tourism and the effects of natural disasters all running through Monsters, plus the various side-effects these situations can prompt: profiteers, grieving families, the inability to escape your environment even in the face of conflict or devastation, etc. Indeed, it’s hard to watch certain scenes or sequences without being reminded of Hurricane Katrina, for example. Moreover, this was the landscape which Edwards, his cast and crew came across when making the film. Whilst he may have added in a wrecked fighter jet or a dead creature to these images in post-production, the fundamental elements remain the same. Similarly, the locals were effectively playing themselves, albeit tweaked a little to suit the narrative, and therefore add a documentary veneer to proceedings, one that’s further emphasised by the grainy film stock and handheld camerawork. At times you almost forget that Monsters is, in fact, a genre pic; remove the creatures and it would remain a remarkable, affecting piece of work.
This same documentary edge relates to the central performances too. Monsters gains a lot by casting two relative unknowns and therefore unburdened by the baggage of previous roles. (Able had a supporting role in All the Boys Love Mandy Layne; to the best of my knowledge the only one of her earlier films to see a UK release. McNairy is a little more familiar, thanks largely to playing the lead in Alex Hodridge’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss, though you wouldn’t especially class him as a known property.) One of the revelations on the commentary is that the pair recorded it (with Edwards) whilst on their honeymoon. They married mere days before the premiere and it goes some way to explaining the chemistry that’s so visible up there on the screen. Admittedly Monsters begins a little haphazardly in laying out their characters’ relationship - two very different people initially not liking one another leading to hints of sexual tension which give way to genuine feelings - but McNairy and Able do much to invest their parts with a lot more than mere cliché. Plus it’s great to find a horror film that hasn’t cast its leads solely on the basis of their photogenic qualities. The ultimate validation of this comes in the very final scene, one that’s altogether rather touching - and how many genre flicks can you say that about?
Momentum are releasing Monsters onto Blu-ray and DVD in the UK. The Blu-ray was provided for review purposes and is a very impressive package. The disc is presented in 1080p using the VC-1 encode and marked for Region B. Given the grainy, slightly over-saturated look of the film it is hard to adjudge perfectly the quality of the transfer, though there are few aspects to give the viewer pause. Slight edge enhancement does make itself known, but otherwise the image remains crisp, clear and free of problems. It’s certainly clean enough to detect some of the shortcomings to the CGI which Edwards is all too willing to point in the commentary. The original 2.35:1 aspect ratio is maintained, whilst the soundtrack is presented in a 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio, one that serves up Jon Hopkins’ impressive score without issue and keeps the dialogue clear and audible throughout. Optional English subtitles are also available.
The special features are an in-depth bunch covering the key aspects of bringing Monsters to screen. Edwards shares commentary duties with his two leads and they make for an engaging, chatty listen that’s heavy on the anecdotes (unsurprising really given the manner in which the film was made). Of particular interest is Edwards’ revealing of how certain scenes were created and how much of that relied on the editing process. During the ‘Day of the Dead’ sequence for example we learn that some of the key shots were merely recorded in a London car park - and yet you’d never realise had he not just informed you. Once again, it’s striking how much Monsters does achieve on such a low-budget. Elsewhere the disc offers up three featurettes, running 55 minutes, 24 minutes and 29 minutes respectively, which take us through the key areas: the actual shoot in Mexico, the construction of the film in editing and the various visual effects that were added in post-production. Understandably each is sufficiently in-depth enough given their running times, whilst all of the major players participate: Edwards, his producers, his leads, etc.
Also present is Edwards’ short film Factory Farmed, another science fiction mood piece captured in ’scope that was made for SyFy’s 48-hour film challenge. As Edwards notes in his introduction to the short, he was given a title, a line of dialogue and just two days to deliver the final work. Of course, it can’t compete with Monsters being only five-minutes in length, but it’s a worthy addition nonetheless, especially as Edwards mentions that it was the first film he’d been involved in which genuinely felt his own despite already having ten years experience of doing effects work for the BBC. Rounding off the package we also have the original theatrical trailer. Note, however, that all additional features are presented in 1080i.