Six years ago, a NASA space probe returned to Earth, carrying with it alien life. When it crash landed in northern Mexico, and alien life forms spread throughout the country, prompting United States and Mexican authorities to quarantine the region to contain their spread. When a photographer is asked to bring his employer’s daughter back to the United States, they have to travel through the infected zone to reach safety. The film is a stunning, beautiful, and understated movie that surprised me all the way through to the credits.
Recently released to DVD, Monsters is a film that I’ve been wanting to see for a little while now: it was on a limited circuit in theaters, and on demand, and it wasn’t until its recent release that I’ve been able to see it. The wait was certainly worth it: Monsters is easily one of the best science fiction films to have been released in 2010, and easily ranks amongst some of my favorite films in the genre, such as Moon, District 9 and Alien.
What’s even more surprising here is that Monsters, directed by Gareth Edwards, was an exceptionally cheap film to make, coming in around $500,000, cheaper than Moon at $5 million and District 9 at $29 million, by a long shot. Like some of its fellow low-budget counterparts, the strength here doesn’t lie with known stars or even elaborate sets, but is exemplified by its story and themes, elements that most likely couldn’t have shone through to the extent that they did in any other way.
Like Alien or even Jaws, Monsters does more with less – a lot less – The aliens that we see are only seen at rare points in the film. Watching promotional trailers for this, it’s easy to see how this type of film could have been seen as a monster flick – the plot certainly allows for something along those lines (and it could be an option at some point, certainly) – but this film isn’t really about the aliens that have landed: this film is, at its heart a love story with a political message within it. Low budgets certainly don’t equal quality film and storylines, but Monsters hits both the quality visual appearance, and quality storyline to make this something special. Furthermore, this is a science fiction film where the film isn’t driven by the strange science fiction things in the foreground, but a human story within speculative fiction constraints that sets the boundaries for how the story plays out.
The idea of the United States constructing a wall to hold out aliens has a clear and pointed political message behind it, particularly relating to immigration from Mexico into the US. Much like District 9 was about immigration, the message comes off as a little heavy-handed at points, the filmmaker making it clear what he thinks about the situation. Immigration is a multifaceted issue, coming across as a threat to be contained, or something with an unseen or hidden beauty that requires the right timing and placement to be seen.
When it comes to the other element of the story the relationship between Andrew, a photojournalist and Samantha, the daughter of his editor, the film gets a little more clunky. There’s something to be said for an offbeat nature to Andrew’s character as someone who’s cynical and fairly unlikable, but the film does very little to expand the characters or provide them with any measure of depth. The story is elementary: boy and girl meet, boy likes girl, girl is engaged and eventually likes him. That being said, the story works for what it is, and while it’s uneven, it doesn’t tank the movie like it should have.
Filmwise, the movie is gorgeous. I can’t help but wonder if Edwards (who directed the film and worked as the cinematographer) has experience as a photographer, because there’s a keen eye towards the visual element of the film, with the focus blurring and focusing appropriately, with the camera lingering on the right scenes, and generally not feeling as if the film is driven by the director, but along for the ride as the two characters wander up through Mexico. My only complaint is that when nightfall comes, it’s just a bit too dark, with it hard to see what’s going on. Coupled with Jon Hopkin’s mesmerizing soundtrack, the film is quiet but vibrant at the same time.
Monsters is an excellent film with a quality eye behind the camera, with wonderful colors and composition, with a simple, yet powerful story that ties it all together. It’s a quiet, understated and interesting film, one of the best of 2010, and an excellent example of the genre itself.