Gareth Edwards' Monsters is a low-budget science fiction production with big ideas, shot in some of the poorest parts of the world, and a story that revolves around a catalysmic event that's changed the planet as we know it. At the risk of incurring the director's displeasure, you can certainly draw parallels between it and Neil Blomkamp's District 9.
But Edward's film more than stands up by itself. It's a few steps short of perfect, limited by the practical realities of guerilla filmmaking, character development that doesn't always ring true and one or two effects shots that betray their origins on the director's laptop. Beyond that, it's a wildly entertaining piece of work and one of the most astonishing debut features in years.
Loosely based on real scientific theories about the places extraterrestrial life might exist in our solar system, and an actual NASA probe planned to collect samples from these places, Monsters is set in the near future when said probe broke apart in the atmosphere and deposited fragments of the wreckage all over Central America.
Huge swathes of Mexico and the south of the US have been barricaded off as an Infected Zone, where strange alien creatures wreak havoc, mutations spread further through the local flora every day and the Mexican and US military struggle to contain the threat. Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is a photojournalist charged with finding his boss' daughter Samantha (Whitney Able), who's disappeared into the Infected Zone, and bringing her back to the States.
Thus Monsters is a road movie shot on the fly across the breadth of Central America, a journey of discovery firstly in the obvious sense, with Andrew and Samantha slowly falling for each other. More subtly, it deals with discovery inasmuch as it deals in haunting, enigmatic snapshots of the couple's surroundings which work in the context of the film's fiction, but also as a fantastic travelogue of each real world destination they visit.
No plot thread or genre element is significantly weaker than any of the others. McNairy and Able are a real life couple who were dating during filming, and Edwards employs their chemistry to superbly moving effect. Other than one or two overly didactic lines, the allegories are far subtler than genre film commonly manages, with Monsters getting far more nuance out of enigmatic parallels with immigration and isolationism than District 9's attempts to tie its storyline in with the history of apartheid.
And it is hugely impressive simply taken as pure genre entertainment. The titular creatures don't appear in the film for quite some time past the first action sequence, and the way similar footage reappears multiple times as news broadcasts on television sets glimpsed on the background makes it seem as if Edwards (who created the CG) blew his funds on the opening.
Nothing could be further from the truth; there are several more key set pieces visually far beyond anything the meagre budget would suggest. The design work and the rendering are both superb, and only one or two close up shots in the climactic sequence feel somewhat jarring. Some are obviously designed to fool the viewer into thinking more is going on than is actually the case, but at least one moment is shockingly, immediately physical.
You can pick holes in the film. While McNairy and Able both give excellent performances and are plainly attracted to each other, their characterisation on paper is somewhat thin and several exchanges of dialogue don't ring entirely true. At least one pivotal plot point stems from a decision of Andrew's which you could arguably expect would leave Samantha furious with him, yet she reacts as if she's working from a different script entirely.
Kaulder is even borderline unlikeable in places, something which doesn't always feel intentional. The story occasionally feels faintly mean-spirited; the ending in particular shoots for pathos and largely reaches it, yet still comes across ever so slightly as if Edwards is thumbing his nose at the viewer.
The documentary structure also causes the occasional problem - Edwards and his crew shot the film as they traced the characters' journey, wandering through locations without official permission, drafting the locals as extras, many of the gunmen on screen actual mercenaries sent by the government as protection.
Mostly it works wonders - several sequences around the middle of the film are built on beautifully naturalistic reaction shots and the kind of visually striking imagery you could study on freeze frame for hours. Occasionally, though, the storytelling can feel somewhat choppy, or a little too contemplative than was really necessary.
But these are nitpicks. Monsters might not be perfect but it's far and away one of the best films of the year, gripping, poignant, jaw-droppingly beautiful and horrifying by turns, and it puts most of the competition to shame regardless of how much money went into it. Edwards and his leads deserve every bit of recognition they get, and one can only hope all three have a long career ahead of them. For anyone with even the slightest interest in this film it comes hugely, hugely recommended.