When aliens inhabit the Earth in Hollywood movies, they are usually lumbering creatures of mass destruction, propelled by a battalion of computer-generated-imagery animators, easy to spot.
In the entrancing independent science-fiction road movie Monsters, the enormous extraterrestrials wreaking havoc were made entirely by the film's British director, Gareth Edwards, who gained a reputation for whipping up award-winning digital visual effects solo (including 250 effects for the 2009 BBC-TV drama Attila the Hun, which he also directed).
Not surprisingly, this factoid was the subject of much advance buzz for Monsters, Edwards's first feature, during its festival run earlier this year. But the handmade aesthetic of the film extends far beyond its impressive yet elusive creatures. Edwards plotted a story, then took his two main actors and a skeleton crew on a trek across Central America, hitting exotic locations, improvising dialogue and casting locals as they went along. The result is an ambitious yet intimate film that feels both fresh and familiar.
The backstory of Monsters is straightforward. A space probe crash-landed in Mexico carrying alien life forms that grew into towering, destructive creatures. Six years later, when the film begins, they are contained, mostly, in the Infected Zone, a broad swath of Mexico with the United States at its fortified northern border. U.S. military air power is on constant vigil.
The film's notion of alien "containment" has drawn comparisons to last year's Oscar-nominated District 9, in which stranded extraterrestrials live in a heavily guarded slum outside Johannesburg. But where District 9 deliberately addresses the theme of segregation - via plenty of visceral action - the zone in Monsters mostly serves as a sparsely populated restricted area that is reverting back to nature. More specifically, it's the perfect setting for two bright, attractive strangers to get to know each other.
Monsters actually most resembles Richard Linklater's two-hander Before Sunrise, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy play travellers who kill time before their separate flights, engaging in flirtatious intellectual chat while strolling around Vienna. Edwards finds a smart pair in Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able (a couple when they were cast and now married), who cover decidedly more dangerous terrain. The success of the film hinges on their natural chemistry and improvisational chops.
McNairy plays Kaulder, an American photojournalist on assignment in Mexico, trying to nab shots of live aliens but finding only the wreckage they leave behind. His boss commandeers him to locate his vacationing daughter, Sam (Able), injured during a recent alien rampage, escort her to the coast and put her on the last ferry home. One stolen ticket later, the pair make a deal for passage through the Infected Zone, first by boat and then by foot, guided by small group of armed locals, one of whom says, "If you don't bother them, they don't bother you."
Edwards keeps the pacing brisk and uses the jungle's eerie silence to build suspense. As Kaulder and Sam gradually figure out what's really happening in the Infected Zone, they also begin to reveal their personal stories, joking around and sometimes stopping to admire the view. And, yes, on occasion they do spring into action.
With Monsters, Edwards transcends the special-effects auteur label, creating a memorable sci-fi story in which the hero and heroine are true equals in the adventure. How's that for an alien concept?
- Written and directed by Gareth Edwards
- Starring Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able
Special to The Globe and Mail