SXSW Review: ‘Monsters’

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.

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  • Guitarmahn
    November 5, 2010 at 12:02 am

    I CAME FOR THE MONSTERS AND GOT a yawnfest. Cerebral critics may pat themselves on the back for getting this big pile of dung but the rest of us would prefer Godzilla vs Frankenstein. I hated Hated this letdown of bile. Hey why not make a touching zombie movie set in a changing new Cuba & have one zombie show up at the end who is a vegan? Hey critics! the emperor has no clothes & this movie blows! I read one girls review I liked “Squids arent scary, their just boring and ugly” This goes in the years worst.

  • Anonymous
    October 21, 2010 at 3:51 am

    “full of interesting and diverse characters”
    Full as in only 2 characters? The two tired and predicatable characters?

    This movie is garbage and the reviewer lost all cred in suggesting otherwise.

  • Guacala
    October 21, 2010 at 2:42 am

    It looked promising but I stopped watching when the film shows the banner “San Jose, Central America”. If the filmmaker cannot get right that Mexico is in North America, easily solved just by searching “Mexico” on Wikipedia, I cannot imagine what kind of misconceptions, stereotypes and cliches he resorted too.
    Just imagine your reaction if someone did a movie and showed a banner “New York City, Canada”.

  • Syntheticmode
    September 28, 2010 at 8:14 am

    “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.” May I ask when this happens? You must have saw a different version than I did. There is only about 2 minutes of monster footage you don’t see in the trailer. Even that is poorly done by todays standards. Great creatures?? WHERE? The tree fungus with LEDs embedded in them get more screen time.
    The love story? OK, who sits around on a friday night and says “hon, would you like to go see a romance picture? Monsters is playing.” This is THEFT. Bait and switch. You don’t even give a damn about the two people.
    MONSTERS is anything but. You sit the entire picture waiting for ANYTHING to happen and nothing ever does. You can get the exact same effect if you watched the trailer on loop for an hour and a half.
    Doesn’t help that people write reviews like this either…helps in stealing your cash.
    “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.”
    Human story…right so why exactly is it titled MONSTERS?
    Interesting characters? who? The ferry ticket salesman? The woman at the end that barks like a dog? WHAT characters?
    believable world, ok I buy that…it looks like any other third world war torn country.
    Here’s the REAL review…one the author of this review WON’T give:

    So, some guy with a camera crew and a romance script goes out into the jungle and shoots a movie. The characters are not all that interesting and we’ve seen them a hundred times before. There are some locals used for filler. When they were finalizing the film they realized they had a total turd so…to try and save it they threw in some CGI tentacles and some tree fungus with lights in it and decided to bill it as an alien invasion movie to get SOMEONE to come watch it. I asked for my money back. Its lame. The monsters are supposedly 100 feet tall and Mexico is over ran by them. Yet, oddly in the long wide camera shots you see none in the distance. They come up to road blocks on their passage through the “infected zone” that are simple iron bars across the road. Yes, this is how 100ft monsters are held in check in Mexico. Its completely unbelievable from beginning to end. Trust me, if you go see this movie, you will be sitting slack jawed at the end because you’ll be so surprised that you spent money to be ripped off.

    Now THAT is an honest review.

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    July 2, 2010 at 5:32 am

    […] sci-fi film, Monsters. While the film may have been made for as little as $15,000, critics have been salivating over every element of the film, from the surprisingly good special effects to the […]

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