Much Like District 9, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity before it, Monsters exists in a world where filmmakers with a singular vision just decide one day to go out and make the film they’ve always wanted to make. Packing his cast and a small crew into a van, writer/director Gareth Edwards traveled for several months throughout Central America in an attempt to realize that vision. Monsters is the result.
Part alien invasion, part road movie and part love story, Monsters balances all three well and manages to entertain and generate quite a few thrills and suspenseful moments. It also has other moments of genuine humor, emotion and character which are often lacking in other more mainstream films and doesn’t rely on heavy-handed spectacle to get its points across.
It’s also the strength of the developing relationship between the two leads, Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Sam (Whitney Able), which gives Monsters its emotion center. Perhaps it’s because the two leads developed a real romantic relationship over the course of making the film that their onscreen relationship works so well. You believe it because it’s actually happening.
As they go through the ordeal of the film, you trust they are experiencing what is happening to them and as they do, this brings them closer together. At first, of course, they are far apart but as the film progresses and the danger increases, they draw closer and must fight together to survive. Adversity, as it often does, brings people closer together, and these two are no exception.
In addition to the two appealing leads, the film also relies on the use of improvisation and local actors to flesh out its cast. For some films, this would be a problem. However, for Monsters, Edwards deftly handles the improv and the local actors and gets a performance out of almost every one of them — in particular a ferry ticket seller very reluctant to make a deal.
Also of note in the film is the extensive use of CGI. Normally, something like that might bother me and detract from my viewing enjoyment of a film. As it often does if the director is Michael Bay, for example. However, in the case of Monsters, it doesn’t.
Much like District 9, to which it will inevitably be compared, Monsters manages to seemlessly blend its effects with the real locations and create a wholly believable world. Plus, the effects in the film are made all the more impressive by the fact that Edwards executed them all himself during six months of post production. An amazing feat indeed and yet another testimate to achieving that singular vision.
Even with all its strengths, the film does have its flaws, as most do. It suffers a bit in the second act and at times feels like it takes too long to get somewhere and for something to happen.
Occasionally, the character building scenes tended to run a bit long but the actors are so appealing and “in the moment’ you can almost forgive the film its few excesses. Also, I had hoped there should be a few more actual monsters, given the title of the film.
Much like Jaws and Jurassic Park, to which this film pays homage to in a few key scenes, you are treated to ever clearer glimpses of the creatures and what they are capable of. However, unlike those films, when you eventually do get to see the monsters up close and personal during the film’s conclusion, the resulting scenes are somewhat anti-climactic. Fortunately, the leads of the film and their relationship, which is the more important story here, mostly makes up for it.
Sure, it might have been nice to see more monsters, battles and things blowing up, but for this film you have to let that go. That’s not what it’s really about. If you want to see that, there’s always plenty of films that will satisfy. To be sure, it would have been fun to see a bit more of the creatures but the film, as a whole, doesn’t suffer much by their absence.
Another element of the film that’s particularly intriguing is the way Edwards structures the beginning and ending. Serving as bookends, those scenes give you insight into what may happen to our characters even as it seems they may have finally gotten away to go live happily ever after. It’s a cleaver device that serves the film well and also makes for good fodder for repeat viewings.
Fortunately, the film’s strengths far outweigh it’s weaknesses and Edwards manages to pull together good performances from his actors, both professional and amateur, and create a world you buy into immediately. That’s an accomplishment considering the very low budget he had to work with and the conditions of the shoot.
If you’re looking for huge explosions, immense battles and aliens galore, look elsewhere. There’s probably a movie playing at your local multiplex right now with all that, and more. However, that’s not what Monsters is about.
If you are looking for a very human story full of interesting and diverse characters who experience genuine emotion and convey that onscreen, plus some great creatures, a wholly believable world and a director’s vision realized, then Monsters is a film for you.