Monsters (plus director interview)

(Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion – I also have an interview with the director Gareth Evans about the film on the MangaUK blog.)

Monsters is already the subject of much buzz, although it’s one of these films where the punditry blurs two things together. One is the story of the film’s making, which is fascinating; the film itself is rather good, but not as interesting as its origins. Briefly, Monsters was made by a first-time British director, Gareth Edwards, who shot it for an extremely low budget on location. (The third-act scenes, for examples, were shot in Texas after a hurricane.) Apart from the two main actors and the animated-later aliens, nearly everyone on screen is a local, acting in scenes improvised round a loose (and sensibly simple) story. However, the cameras are steady; despite the realist tone, this isn’t a found-footage exercise like Blair Witch, Cloverfield or much of District 9.

Monsters is a creature feature where the creatures’ appearances are very rationed indeed, although (slight spoiler) we do get a lengthy look at them before the end credits roll. The film’s conceit is to portray an alien infestation along the lines of the unending conflict in Afghanistan, rather than the shock and awe of Pearl Harbour. The story takes place five years after creatures first landed in South America. Thousands, perhaps millions of people have been killed, but the paradigm-shifting shock has been dulled, and the First World has been working hard to keep the menace out, building a giant wall across the Mexican border, while US fighter planes strafe the landscape. “It’s different looking at America from the outside,” the protagonist comments.

As in Cloverfield, the characters are the “little people” of past monster flicks. A photo-journalist (Scoot McNairy), looking for horrors to shoot for tabloids, is landed with the job of escorting his boss’s attractive blonde daughter (Whitney Abe) onto the boat to the States. With the monsters largely off-screen, this is essentially a road movie (an excursion on water suggests a miniature Apocalypse Now). Edwards slowly sketches both the imaginary situation and the characters’ up-and-down relationship, handling both with aplomb. The “hero’s” limitations (including his forlorn efforts to “pull”) are shown with cruel humour, while the background situation is tantalisingly believable. For all the incredible sunrises, ruined buildings and boats hanging in the trees, one of the most affecting moments is when the couple sees a “Day of the Dead” memorial parade, festooned with photos of killed children and “Stop the Bombing” graffiti.

Unfortunately, the fable becomes rather too obvious, its loudly telegraphed moral not so far from Star Trek. However, it’s saved from corn-porn by its human players and a last so-that’s-what-that-scene-meant flourish (which works even if you spot it coming). As with last year’s low-budget Moon, Monsters feels like the film equivalent of one of the sturdy slim SF hardbacks that seem hard to find these days.

Personally, I liked Monsters more than Moon (or District 9), though that may be my bias towards its choice of scenario, rather than its other accomplishments. However, Monsters is more liable to disappoint audience expectations. Even at its Sci-Fi London screening last month, the presenter felt obliged to say that this wasn’t another District 9 or Cloverfield. The few monster scenes are good, though the design of the aliens is no great surprise, while the imagery of behemoths bestriding dark and misty landscapes is strongly reminiscent of The Mist. The story, though, isn’t, and that’s what counts.

(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.