What little marketing exists for Monsters gives the impression that it’s a split between District 9 and Paranormal Activity: A high-concept underground horror flick about aliens who have invaded. In reality, the film plays out more like a standard road movie, with a sci-fi backdrop to make it more interesting than those annoying indie road movies Matt and I just complained about. Luckily, compelling leads and a decent script prevent it from looking like a hackneyed riff on a stale genre.
The early scenes force the pairing of Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Sam (Whitney Able). He works as a photographer for a shadowy, Hearst-like newspaper magnate. She’s the boss’s daughter. Kaulder gets charged with the task of bringing Sam home from Mexico. There’s a little hitch to the formula, though: “Six years ago,” aliens invaded and took over much of northern Mexico and Texas. Nobody knows much about them, except they have a penchant for death and destruction and must be avoided at all costs.
In sequences reminiscent of Firefly‘s Reavers, writer/director Gareth Edwards mines incredible suspense from reactions. He rarely shows the creatures until the last few minutes, relying instead on the actors’ palpable fear even in the safest of conditions. He builds a convincing world of utter terror, lingering on shots of half-destroyed apartments and roads to give an idea of the creatures’ destructive powers.
In perhaps the boldest move, at least philosophically, the people in this place that looks so post-apocalyptic carries on as usual. Though they live in near-constant terror, they’ve adjusted to the horror. They simply evacuate when the creatures’ migratory patterns will cause them to traipse through their towns. The TV news display the migration like weather patterns, with anonymous voices describing it with the same apathy as “Seventy-five degrees and partly cloudy.”
This is a fully realized world, but the story itself focuses less on running from alien attacks than Kaulder and Sam getting to know each other as they head home. Failure to secure passage on a ferry to Baja (a safe zone) forces them to travel through the Infected Zone, the creatures’ domain. They hire guides, bribe border officials, and move into the jungle. Before long, the creatures have killed their shepherds, so Kaulder and Sam are forced to go it alone.
It’s a simple story that works partly because of its simplicity, but mainly because of Edwards. He manages a perfect balancing act between using the setting for narrative purposes—at every turn, the creatures’ impact forces them to change their travel plans—and keeping it in the background to focus on the blossoming relationship between Kaulder and Sam. In those roles, McNairy and Able prove themselves capable of doing better work than the bit parts and supporting roles they’ve spent their careers performing.
Overall, Monsters is a good film that seems even better in light of its alleged $15,000 budget. It provides some evidence that filmmakers can work wonders on the cheap if they just use some imagination. It also shows that it’s very easy to tell a familiar story in a new way. It’s playing in less than a handful of theatres around the country, but luckily, Amazon’s offering it On Demand. It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but it’s well worth the $10.