Movies: Monsters * * * *
(12A, General release)
If ever a film deserved an extra star for ingenuity it's Gareth Edwards' Monsters. Made for less than half a million dollars using two unknown actors and a supporting cast of extras, the film makes a virtue of its slender resources by adopting the Jaws principle, that what you don't see is a lot scarier than anything you do.
Monsters is set in 2015, six years after a human space probe crashed in northern Mexico, accidentally scattering harvested alien seeds. These have grown into enormous, squid-like amphibians that are holding sway near the US/Mexico border in an area that has been quarantined.
These great creatures float across the dusty landscape on spindly legs that are somehow strong enough to support the weight of their massive, glowing heads. They have spread panic and mayhem, and at the start of the film, we see a lone man trying to rescue an injured woman as an army unit opens fire on a marauding creature.
The scene then shifts to Mexico proper, where a young magazine photographer called Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) wanders through the aftermath of an alien altercation looking for a woman called Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able). She is his boss's daughter, and Andrew has been charged in no uncertain terms with the responsibility of getting her back to America, which has remained alien-free thanks to a giant new border barrier.
When Andrew finds Samantha, she is less than impressed, but reluctantly agrees to head north with him. When they reach the edge of the so-called 'infected zone', Andrew buys them tickets on a ferry to California that's due to leave early the next morning. There's considerable sexual tension between the two, but Samantha's engaged to be married, so after she rejects his subtle advances, he goes out on the town in search of a more amenable female.
He finds one, but next morning he realises that he and Samantha's passports have been robbed from his hotel room. Stranded, the couple have no choice but to pay a group of locals to escort them through the infected zone to the US border. They do this by land and river, and at dawn and dusk terrifying extraterrestrial bellows ring through the jungles around them. And while the aliens themselves are rarely glimpsed, the travellers pass chilling evidence of their presence.
A fishing boat has been dumped halfway up a hillside, jeeps sit twisted and upended as though prised apart by a giant tin opener. Whatever these things are, their power is not to be doubted, and when Andrew and Samantha's convoy is attacked, they realise just what they're up against.
What Monsters does brilliantly is establish an atmosphere. News reports at the film's start set the scene without giving too much away. And as the couple struggle through the jungle, things get so jumpy you almost yearn to see one of the creatures and get it over with. Apparently, Edwards filmed all his location scenes in a hectic three-week rush, then retired to the editing studio for eight months to meticulously add his special effects.
Edwards made his name as an effects designer, and he does a quite beautiful job of inserting the creatures and their trails of destruction into his live-action canvas. The beasts themselves are cleverly designed and refreshingly original: they are simultaneously grotesque and graceful, and their actual intentions remain obscure.
I suppose I had a slight problem with the ending, because just as the aliens are getting interesting, they and the film up and disappear. But overall Monsters is a remarkable achievement and a bold piece of low-budget film-making, especially when compared to that other recent alien invasion vehicle, the dreadful and artless Skyline.
Monsters might be short on substance and detail, but if Gareth Edwards can make a film like this for half a million dollars, it makes you wonder what he might achieve with a bigger budget.