It's worth stating at the outset that Monsters is not a Monster movie, despite what some of the marketing blurb on the DVD packaging would have you believe. Instead, Gareth Edwards' extraordinary debut is far less popcorn and far more rewarding than just another creature feature. For at its core Monsters is a love story, a journey of discovery and a thoughtful examination of human nature. So it's unfortunate that quotes selling it as 'action packed' may disappoint those expecting to see something akin to Godzilla crossed with Aliens. In terms of thrills it does have its moments but they're not the point of this movie, as instead it focuses on the relationship of two people forming a bond in extraordinary circumstances while attempting to find their way home.
Monsters is set in a world where extra terrestrials have spread throughout Northern Mexico after a NASA space probe containing alien life forms landed there 6 years earlier. Consequently the whole of this area is quarantined, with a huge wall constructed along the American border to keep the creatures out. Into this scenario steps Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist who is asked to escort the daughter of his employer home to the US from Central America. Of course the journey won't turn out to be an easy one and a series of events occur that mean Andrew and Samantha (Whitney Able) are forced to journey home the hard way.
The first half of the film is set well outside the quarantined area and although the pace may be too slow for some, it does afford an opportunity to get to know the two protagonists. Travelling with them by rail, road and foot, Edwards employs a slow build, semi documentary style that allows the characters to develop as credible, realistic individuals. Dialogue often has an ad-libbed feel to it and both McNairy and Able give engagingly natural performances throughout. It's also an approach that allows the world around them to grow and take shape, as we pick up information from the locals they meet and from news reports playing on TV sets in the background (much of it focusing on air strikes and paranoia concerning an enemy that remains largely unseen).
As the film progresses and plans go awry, the two of them have to bribe their way into the infected zone. It is here that Edwards creates a quietly brooding atmosphere of tension and suspense, eventually culminating in one of the film's few set pieces; a night time attack on the small convoy of which Andrew and Samantha are a part. It's a sequence that suggests the director has learnt from the best, possessing as it does a dash of the style and impact of the T-Rex attack in Spielberg's Jurassic Park. Also, the visual effects, though used sparingly, ably illustrate that this is a man who knows how to get the most out of every penny of a reportedly minuscule budget.
But it is in the scenes following that Edwards really begins to weave his spell, as it becomes apparent that Monsters doesn't intend to follow the path dictated by the night time attack, instead taking us on a less obvious journey. The plaintive, haunting tone Edwards creates (enhanced by the score of Jon Hopkins) recalls moments in Apocalypse Now and Aguirre, Wrath of God, when the eerie jungle stillness whispers uneasy prophecies of an uncertain future. And as we listen to Andrew and Samantha musing on their lives and what tomorrow may have in store, we realise that these characters have never looked more at home. It's a wonderfully seductive sequence and the sight of the huge wall on the US border suddenly represents something that neither they nor the audience are particularly keen to reach.
Meanings and motivation are not spelt out in Monsters, the explanation for events often merely suggested. Are the creatures provoked? Are the air strikes pointless? Where is home and what does home mean? Because of this ambiguity it's the sort of film you may end up loving the more you think about it. However, what is clear is that Andrew and Samantha are on the edge of huge events and that big things are happening elsewhere. But in the end what concerns us is the phone call Andrew makes home to his son and the dread Samantha feels about going home. In Monsters, these are the things that matter, not a war being fought elsewhere. This makes the impact of the war all the more profound, as the film's closing scenes deliver moments of heartbreaking poignancy. And if you give this remarkable film the attention it truly deserves then these moments become devastating.
Extras: Some fascinating insights into Edwards' approach to film making, courtesy of several substantial behind the scenes features, along with an informative commentary that really makes you doff your cap to the man's ingenuity and passion. His excellent short film Factory Farmed and the Monsters trailer complete the package.