Review: Monsters

Film review
Directed by Gareth Edwards
Starring Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able

A probe carrying alien samples from Europa has crashed over Mexico, leaving half the country to be quarantined off as the Infected Zone. As the military struggles to contain giant tentacled alien creatures, journalist Andrew Kaulder (McNairy) and engaged American tourist Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) must travel through the Zone to reach the US border…

Gareth Edwards’ feature debut may be called Monsters, but it’s the humans that really make this indie sci-fi flick tick. The early scenes, in which journo Andrew and tourist Sam (played by then real-life couple Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able) hang around a Mexican border town, are just as compelling as their subsequent trek through the monster-filled jungle. This first act has a hypnotic mix of the quotidian (downing tequila, watching TV) and the crazy (helicopter patrols attempt to contain the creatures in the distance), and sets the scene for a quirky, surprising story that places an emphasis on character over action and effects – though don’t worry, you get that too.

As the pair are brought ever closer together by their perilous trek through the Infected Zone, the movie almost resembles a super-weird spin on The African Queen. Yet there’s more to Monsters than romantic romping. The couple’s journey is filled with starkly beautiful sights (alien spores glowing on trees; a ship caught in trees that looks like a refugee from Fitzcarraldo) and stark realisations (only the wealthy can afford to flee; airstrikes merely antagonise the creatures), while the narrative touches on everything from migration across borders to the war on terror. However, as with 2009’s District 9 – another tentacled-creature feature with a social subtext – these political allusions wisely simmer in the background rather than overwhelming the narrative.

As well as classic adventure pictures and lo-fi indie drama, Edwards draws on traditional SF concepts: the idea of characters venturing into an infected zone is reminiscent of both Roger Zelzany’s classic Damnation Alley and the Strugatsky brothers’ more metaphysical Roadside Picnic (filmed by Andrei Tarkovsky as Stalker). Yet for all this, Monsters feels fresh and exciting. The guerrilla filming in Central America and improvised script lend the story immediacy despite the relatively slow pace, while Jon Hopkins’ ambient soundtrack gives it a mesmerising, dreamy quality.

After Possession, The Mist, District 9 and now Monsters, it’s starting to feel like the tentacled monster movie is the place for an intelligent, grown-up analysis of contemporary society rather than earnest “issues” dramas. Maybe Lions for Lambs and Redacted would have been more watchable had they featured a few wobbly-limbed monstrosities… Matt McAllister

VERDICT: 9/10
Smart, stylish and spellbinding, Gareth Edwards’ debut is monstrously entertaining.

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