Before Sunrise meets Jurassic Park
2 things: First of all, don’t let the title put you off. I’m not sure what the writer was thinking, and whether he intended to trick his likely audience into seeing something altogether more subtle, interesting and creative than “Monsters” suggests. But he certainly has.
Granted, scary creatures do form the background for the story, the premise being that alien lifeforms hit earth six years ago and are being contained in an “infected zone” between Mexico and the USA. Our protaganist Caulder is an ambitious young photojournalist tasked with delivering his boss’ daughter safely from central America, through the infected zone, and back home to her privileged life and forthcoming marriage plans.
Unexpectedly, it is the relationship between Caulder and Sam which drives this story. Whereas in other “humans vs aliens” movies the romantic subplot merely serves to give the hero opportunities to save the dame (and ensure the target male audience can bring their girlfriends and still call it a “date movie” – or ogle Megan Fox and wish she was their date) in Monsters the focus is on Caulder and Sam’s journey through the zone. The pair’s interactions are natural and largely realistic, and they are inevitably thrown together as allies against the dangerous and uncertain world they have to traverse in order to get home. However, once again the filmmaker confounds stereotypical, Hollywood expectations by having Caulder and Sam encounter well-rounded Central American characters who help them on their way. The dialogue slips effortlessly between Spanish and English, with subtitles only where necessary (since Sam, the Spanish speaker of the pair, has to translate to Caulder, and us, much of the time). The naturalistic foreign actors (all improvising on the day of shooting, so likely not actors at all!) give the story a depth and realism, and this, coupled with the fact the eponymous creatures are not seen or heard until midway through the film, allows us to believe in the plausibility of an otherwise typically sci-fi situation.
The film’s key strengths are in the performances of the actors (Scoot McNairy was equally engaging in the lowbudget flick In Search of a Midnight Kiss – a recommended rental) and the filmmaker’s wise decision not to make the aliens the centre of the film. Their menace is far better conveyed in the subtle use of sound and build-up of tension. While my pitch that this is “Before Sunrise meets Jurassic Park” is only slightly tongue-in-cheek, Steven Spielberg would never have got Monsters signed off back in the ’90s, as it’s simply not obvious and in-your-face enough for that. And it’s all the better for it.
Second, and most importantly – watch out for the name “Gareth Edwards”. This young Briton, who has the dubious honour of being the Gareth Edwards(V) on IMDb, has produced one of the best new genre films of 2010, for less than $100k, and virtually single-handedly. He not only wrote and directed, but is also the DoP responsible for some extremely sophisticated and atmospheric photography. On top of this, Edwards was also Production Designer. With a history in digital effects and post-production work, his first feature already has something of a cult following, and there is no doubt Edwards will be snapped up by the big studios on the strength of this film. Hopefully he’ll be able to maintain a career more along Fincher lines than lose his soul to Transformers 5 or some other interminable Aliens vs Predators vs Terminator sequel. With so many strings to his bow, here’s hoping it will be Edwards calling all the shots.