Six years after a NASA probe crashed in northern Mexico, bringing with it an extraterrestrial pathogen that spawned a new species of massive creatures, a good section of the country has been quarantined. The United States has never been safer from Mexicans; unfortunately, both sides now have to contend with hard-to-kill aliens. Monsters, the new sci-fi drama-thriller from relatively new director Gareth Edwards, brings this situation to life in an alluring, even intoxicating fashion that rivals District 9 in many ways.
Monsters focuses on two Americans, Andrew (Scott McNairy) and Samantha (Whitney Able), as they find themselves stuck in Mexico. They make the decision to travel through the infected zone to the U.S. border. Previously strangers, they slowly bond throughout their adventure and discover things aren't as scary on the "other side of the fence."
Before I went and saw Monsters, the film's publicity contact warned me the movie was not a horror movie but a drama. Setting the right expectations is key for a movie like this, one that will naturally cater to the horror crowd given that it's about aliens and titled Monsters. The movie is indeed more of a romantic drama than anything else, albeit one scattered with some suspense and not-so-friendly close encounters.
Monsters is a good movie, one that is beautifully shot and bound to garner more work for Edwards in the near future. Allegedly shot for only $15,000, Monsters looks like a big-budget action movie while benefiting from its actual lack of money; Edwards is forced to focus on the characters and settings to set the mood rather than relying on a lot of massive special effects sequences. Still, Edwards, who has a visual effects background, utilizes his craft throughout, creating a world that has been devastated by an alien infestation.
McNairy and Able turn in great performances in their respective roles. Working off a dutiful script by Edwards, the two share excellent chemistry. Edwards progresses their relationship naturally throughout the picture and the two play off that progression well. They make the audience care for what happens to them, and in a movie with only two named characters, that's extremely important.
Suspense slowly builds throughout Monsters, aided by the constant threat of the creatures. There are several tense sequences, though it never is "exciting." The movie is, after all, a drama.
Still, to really catch on with mainstream audiences, Monsters needed more excitement. Edwards forces his picture to be subdued even when it would have been more natural to kick things up a notch. The major attack sequence halfway through the movie starts off a lot like the memorable T-Rex attack in Jurassic Park, but Edwards pulls back almost as quickly as it has begun. Regardless of budget, dwelling on this pivotal moment a little longer would have amped up the suspense considerably and paid dividends in following scenes.
Oddly, though the characters show some sadness when they emerge the next morning to find their traveling partners dead, they don't react in the way I expected them to react. This is a minor, underlying issue throughout. The characters are incredibly well written in the way they interact with one another, but they never act as though they are wandering through a countryside inhabited by large, deadly creatures. After they are attacked, they don't even grab guns. Who in their right mind would not grab a gun in such a situation? They rarely seem as terrified about their situation as they should be.
The climax is also a bit of a letdown. Edwards could have established a lot more tension while still accomplishing what he ends up doing; as is, the ending is adequate but not entirely satisfying. The last five seconds of the picture are also a little disconcerting, as Edwards seems to be implying something that doesn't need to be (SPOILER: that the two must separate because their journey is over, even though they are in love).
Monsters is a good movie that defies its budget. In fact, it's the perfect example of how great movies can be made for minimal costs. Still, Edwards' refusal to amp up the excitement in a few pivotal moments will keep it from becoming the next District 9, even though Monsters is better in many ways.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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