‘Monsters’: Like an ‘African Queen’-Inspired Romance

Its impossible not to love a film that presents itself, even in its title, as a B-movie and then insists on telling a story of African Queen-inspired romance against the most realistic backdrop imaginable. Gareth Edwards first feature pulls this off, crafting a tale that, while inferior to its alien invasion cousin District Nine, brings a level of reality and human emotion that even that extraordinary film failed to deliver. In fact, if Rossellini’s postwar neo-realist masterpiece Rome, Open City had been a sci-fi film, it would have looked a bit like Edward’s Monsters.

In Monsters, Edwards has redefined the DIY film. He is part of a group of young guerilla filmmakers that includes Ti West and, to a lesser degree given his backing by Peter Jackson, Neil Blomkamp. These young directors have created a whole new genre of monster movies. Shaping fully realized worlds, these filmmakers are using traditional horror and sci-fi narratives to explore everything from the basic dynamics of human fear to larger stories of ethnic conflict and the war on terror. Eschewing simple moral parables, these films transform the meaning of “gritty realism”. They don’t take us to the world where the monsters live. They bring the monsters home.

If you were lucky you caught this one on the big screen. If you didn’t, it’s a film that doesn’t suffer much from being viewed on your LCD. This is a small film with big special effects and it plays well on a smaller screen even as it puts your home theatre set-up through its paces. Edwards’ background in effects and photography are a plus here as he crafts a film filled not with “special effects” but with fully realized environments. He gives us explosions that are real explosions rather than Michael Bay-inspired acoustic flumes.

Monsters primarily tells a containment saga. This is not surprising since most of the films in the alien invasion genre are containment tales about resisting incursions from within and without. Monsters borrows a page from District Nine in effectively raising questions (and leaving a lot of questions unanswered) about the nature of the threat. Like Blomkamp, Edwards sends his characters into the zone of containment (the “infection zone” here). What they learn, and what we learn, is equal parts wonder, horror and finally despair.

This is far from a perfect film. The narrative sputters and slows down too frequently making it relatively lean 94-minute running time seem a bit too long. The special features for the DVD release are also a bit disappointing. The commentary track includes a discussion between Edwards and his two actors, Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able. This is the best of the special features, at least after actors and director settle down and stop trying to be funny. We eventually learn a great deal about filming on location and working with “actors” who are actually locals in Mexico and Guatamela. We also learn from it what we might not know otherwise, that the two principals are married. This seemed to me to add an extra layer of realism to a film already steeped in it.

The Special Features also include a few deleted scenes that are primarily extended versions of shots that made it into the film. What is missing is a “making of” featurette. If ever a film deserved such a featurette , this is it. The combination of on-location shooting, shoot ‘em up action on a thin budget and creatures effects that employs CGI economically make this element of the film an astonishing achievement. Most film lovers will want to know more about how Edwards pulled it off. Instead, we get a short feature called “HDNET looks at Monsters” which is little more than an extended trailer.

Gareth Edwards has taken American anxiety over terrorism, immigration and instability in the developing world and managed to turn it into a love story with aliens. Although it suffers in comparison to District Nine, it’s a much more successful effort than films like Drew Goddard’s Cloverfield , a strong film that often muted its best ideas with high gloss. Edwards knows that we don’t live in a glossy world. If he stays with science fiction, his next effort is likely to be one of the great films of the genre.

RATING 7 / 10