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Ravings Of A Film Fanatic: Monsters

Words by Nicky Dean

Alien invasions have been a cinematic staple since the fifties, and it’s fair to say that most variations of this simple premise have been covered since then: aliens arrive to wipe out all human life on Earth, aliens arrive to save humans from themselves, aliens come to inexplicably replace all humans with identical alien replicas, aliens come to resurrect the dead, aliens come to sleep with Geena Davis… the list is endless. But what has rarely been documented – if at all – is what goes on on the fringes of an invasion and how it affects people who aren’t directly being lasered or consumed by jelly.

Attempting to fill this void is Monsters, a low-budget road-movie indie romance masquerading as an alien invasion movie. Shot entirely on location using a single camera, it takes place six years after a crashed NASA space probe has unleashed a horde of alien life-forms in Mexico. The creatures spread throughout the country, leading US and Mexican authorities to create a nationwide quarantine zone while they battle to contain them.

Hanging out around the periphery of the on-going military strikes is Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), an American photojournalist in Central America capturing the destruction caused by the conflict and hoping for an elusive shot of the aliens themselves. He is unwillingly given the task of escorting the boss’ daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), from hospital to a ship travelling back to the States. Of course, things fail to go to plan and the two must trek up through the ‘Infected Zone’ which has become home to the creatures, risking their lives and – naturally – their hearts in the process.

The film was reportedly made for under $500,000, with the special effects created using off-the-shelf software in director Gareth Edwards’ bedroom. As a result, the aliens are seen infrequently, usually at night, and often partially obscured. Yet this never comes across as a cheap or quick fix – the limitations actually better serve the film, with their lack of exposure giving us a greater sense of awe and wonder towards the enormous elephantine creatures. Despite their low-cost origins, they still feel fully formed and very real in our minds thanks to the accounts of locals our protagonists encounter and news reports glimpsed on televisions.

The budget restrictions imposed on the film also mean the creatures take a back seat to the real action: the blossoming romance between Kaulder and Sam. It is here that the heart of the film lies, with the aliens merely providing a mechanism for bringing these two lost souls together. Both are unhappy individuals, doing their best to paper over the cracks in their lives, which means their character developments are hardly unexpected and their deepening bond is of course inevitable. However, the chemistry between the leads – surely stemming from the real-life relationship between McNairy and Able – prevents it all from ever feeling false. Their behaviour and responses ring true throughout the film, right up to the emotional climax and terrific parting shot, and their relationship feels incredibly natural and realistic – which is saying something, given all their interactions with giant luminous aliens.

The plot of Monsters is refreshingly thin on the ground. The interest comes from the central characters, the wonderful non-professional supporting cast, and the beautiful photography, interspersed with the occasional tense interaction between the humans and aliens. There are some wonderful scenes, such as the brief stop on top of an Aztec pyramid, looking from a fallen civilisation towards another under threat; the rest are merely brilliant. The use of real people and real locations also helps create an immersive, genuine world. This allows Edwards to use his film as a mirror for a number of issues, from the problems facing developing nations during military conflicts to US immigration policy.

Monsters is a triumph of low-budget film-making, surpassing most sci-fi action movies – not to mention road movies and romances – of recent years by a long stretch. While the slow pace and lack of plot won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, the overall experience is thoroughly rewarding. It’s exciting to see what is possible with technology available to everyone, and while it’s unlikely to change the approach of the major studios, it will hopefully inspire a few a more people to grab a camera and create something equally beautiful and provocative.

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