Monsters is, whichever way you look at it, a remarkable achievement. Shot on the sly, with a minimalist crew, small cast and tiny budget it somehow hides all this behind slick visuals and an engrossing story that paints a beautiful, painfully real picture of Central America under the threat of alien infestation.
Director Gareth Edwards' debut picture cost just £15,000 but feels like millions more with its expansive scope, excellent special effects and stunning imagery. The story involves Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) a photojournalist forced to escort his boss' daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) through a 'Quarantine Zone' on a vast stretch of the Mexican/American border where years earlier a crashed NASA space probe scattered alien life forms into the jungle. Since then, enormous tentacle laden beasts threaten the towns and cities of mankind, forcing the militaries of both countries to push back. Though rich in detail the background is kept firmly in the dark, teased through road signs, news reports and dialogue.
Monsters somehow manages to avoid amateur hour entirely. Its cinematography is breathtaking, smartly utilising the existing natural wonder of Central America and it's rich culture. Since he had only a basic outline of his script, Edwards intelligently uses whatever he comes across; broken roads, passing helicopters, a mournful festival to draw in his audience. Everyone you see in the film, besides the American leads are just civilians he has recruited from the towns they passed through. Even without the alien threat, the film would be a glorious testimony to travel, to exotic landscapes and rich cultural heritage.
The special effects are very good, especially when you consider they were added by the director with his laptop, using off the shelf software. In almost all instances where the creatures are seen or some post-apocalyptic element is presented, they are highly professional, easily standing up to scrutiny.
The 'monsters' themselves are a great piece of design work. They are otherworldly, shamelessly extra-terrestrial, but realistic and believable.
Of course the parallels to Neil Blomkamp's District 9 are inevitable. Both are low budget sci-fi flicks in a third world setting, looking to turn the conventional alien invasion plot on its head. And both films are keenly political as well, but where D9 was as subtle as a pneumatic drill, Monsters is less preachy, simply showing you rather than trying to drive it home. Themes of isolationism, protectionism and migration are all over the film, but don't threaten to overwhelm the narrative as it did in District 9.
In fact, Monsters is an all round better film, with a strong grasp on its characters and balancing the tense, frantic scenes of the creatures with the quieter, tender moments between its excellent leads. It's not perfect. Not all of the special effects entirely work, though this is a minor complaint. Both Able and McNairy, in a relationship before production began, are charismatic and well realised, but their romance is hasty and doesn't entirely feel natural. But then I don't believe in perfect.
In some ways, Monsters is a misleading film, focussing on character over action, experience over plot and atmosphere over thrills. This was not really the film I was expecting to see. I'm not really sure what I wanted to see. But Monsters is one of the finest films of the year, a staggeringly lovely experience that grabs its audience immediately, creating a rich, honest world and lets its audience discover its wonders.