Over the last few years the creature feature has undergone a bit of a micro-scale renaissance as filmmakers around the world have broken the mold of the classic monster movie. Matt Reeves' Cloverfield combined city-wide destruction with the new boom of single-camera, single-POV style filmmaking. Hitoshi Matsumoto's Big Man Japan was a wry love letter to Japan's fading fascination with its own Kaiju traditions. Joon-ho Bong put an energetic, fascinating South Korean flavor all over the science-run-amok niche with The Host. And with District 9 Neill Blomkamp proved that you can make a blockbuster spectacle without Hollywood's bloated budgets and fascination with A-list actors.
Now indie filmmaker Gareth Edwards has arrived on the scene with Monsters, yet another fresh, unique take on the creature feature. However, unlike all of the aforementioned films, Edwards' goal was not to make a giant monster movie, it was to make a small scale, intimate, on-the-road movie that happens to have giant monsters in it from time to time. It takes place in an alternate reality where a NASA space probe has crashed to Earth, releasing in the process the eggs of an alien race that soon spread across Central America. As a result, half of the United States is turned into a massive quarantine zone bordered by an enormous wall and military presence.
Six years after the world has become accustomed to the contaminated zone, Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photographer in Mexico, is asked to escort his bosses' daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), back to America. When an arrangement with a ferry back to America falls through, the unlikely pair are forced to hire a guarded escort to bring them through the contaminated zone over land. And so begins a most unique spin on what giant monster movies need to be.
Those expecting a non-stop effects extravaganza should temper their hopes right now; Monsters is not the film they're looking for. Gareth Edwards certainly has no apprehensions about showing off his behemoths, but this is not their movie. This is Andrew and Sam's movie and that is precisely what makes Monsters so unique. It's not about blowing your mind with action, it's about creating an all-encompassing universe in which this subtle and soft story can exist.
That's not to say that Monsters is without its spectacle. It's there, always looming on the horizon, ready to be showcased in incredibly clever, budget-conscious ways, but what's so impressive about Edwards' film is actually what he doesn't show the audience. The lovely, organic relationship that forms between Andrew and Sam in the midst of all the mayhem is just as rewarding as the restrained, resourceful encounters with the visitors from beyond the stars. And resourceful is a word that only begins to cover the merit of Monsters.
Astounding is a more accurate descriptor when one steps back and thinks about everything that Gareth Edwards accomplished with a truly microbudget. The story might be small-scale, but the world of Monsters surely is not. It's a more cohesive and fascinating alternate reality than most large budget Hollywood sci-fi films manage to pull off, a feat made all the more impressive when one realizes that Edwards was the writer, director, cinematographer and sole visual effects artist.
Unfortunately given that the film is titled Monsters and is ostensibly not directly about monsters, those with a single-track mind are bound to come into the film with a different set of requirments and come out of the film bummed that it wasn't what they were hoping for. However, if you know ahead of time that Edwards' film is about the journey and not the lumbering obstacles from space, most should come away completely satisfied. Monsters is a bittersweet, meticulously crafted, heavily nuanced film that I imagine will only improve with repeat viewings. I just hope that a distributor steps in soon so that genre fans the world over actually have the opportunity for repeat viewings.