Everybody in Mexico wants to be in a monster movie!

Before I saw Gareth Edwards’ film, a friend told me that he’d heard some advance reviews said it rocks and others said it sucks. As one who falls into the former camp, I suspect that those who fall into the latter are folks who went into it expecting one thing but getting another. And I can’t blame someone for going into it with the wrong expectations…

It’s called “Monsters”, after all.

You can't get there from here

But it is more interested in telling the story of the human characters, nicely played by Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy. Andrew (McNairy) is a professional photographer whose employer asks him to escort his daughter Sam (Able) out of Mexico, where she was vacationing when aliens attacked and demolished her hotel. The aliens have been on Earth for 6 years, at this point, and populate several areas around the world, which are referred to as “infected areas”–including northern Mexico. Right in between where Sam is and where she needs to be.

That makes this a road movie. And, like most (all?) road movies, it’s more concerned with the developing relationship between its lead characters than it is about the journey, itself. The titular characters are supporting ones. And I’m alright with that.

The script is strong and the performances are too. At a Q&A after the screening, Able, McNairy, and writer/director Edwards explained that the dialogue was all ad-libbed. The script gave the actors a scene’s setup but the words came from them. And Edwards also explained that he’d spent considerable time trying to decide how to cast the film… pondering two options: hire 2 strangers and hope they could develop chemistry, or hire a couple and hope they could pull off being strangers at the beginning of the film. In the end, he went with the latter and hired real-life couple Able and McNairy. I think it was the right decision. I enjoyed both performances. I cared about these characters. Able and McNairy are the only professional actors in the cast; the rest are amateurs, easily recruited from the shooting locations because, as Edwards explained, ‘Everybody in Mexico wants to be in a monster movie!’

I guess my only complaint would be that the script’s politics were a little too obvious. That means the ending is telegraphed from too far away, but one thing that I thought was a surprising and nice touch was the final revelation that the narrative was circular. I liked that!

And I was actually a little surprised at how much we do see of the aliens. I was also surprised that they looked every bit as good as anything Hollywood puts onscreen for budgets 7,500 -10,000 times the size of Monsters’. I make no secret of being okay with a “monster movie” that plays hard-to-get. Because the film had a very low budget (a shooting budget of, allegedly, only $15G!), the director took his cue from such filmmakers as (early) Steven Spielberg (with his oft-hidden mechanical shark) and Robert Wise (with his emphasis on the horrific sounds of Hill House)… being very choosy about when and how and why to use his special effects budget to show the amphibious aliens. More often, we just hear them. And that’s creepy enough!

Shot with minimal crew (2!) and cast (2!) on a minimal budget, Monsters is a pretty big accomplishment.

→ originally published 2010-09-22