Rating: ★★★½☆

Gareth Edwards’ low-budget British creature feature Monsters is a cinematic achievement of such staggering, scarcely believable ambition that I remain skeptical that the whole production was reigned in at under $500,000 as is claimed. Shot with equipment totalling less than $15,000, starring mostly non-actors and amateur no-namers, with special effects composed via off-the-shelf consumer effects package 3D Studio Max, Monsters virtually redefines guerilla filmmaking for our technologically attuned generation, and despite its many flaws, it is an enticing career-maker for director Edwards.

A NASA space probe has crashed in Mexico, close to the U.S.-Mexico border, causing mysterious, glowing alien lifeforms to live and breed in a highly quarantined area of Mexico. Amid the danger of sporadic alien attacks and retaliatory airstrikes from the U.S. air force (who have erected an enormous wall in an effort to repel the monsters from migrating into the States), photographer Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is hired by his employer to escort his daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), back to the U.S. safely. With travel restricted at the best of times and the clock ticking – in 48 hours, alien migration season begins – they will have to traverse the dangerous “infected zone” to earn their freedom.

Certainly offering more than a few “how did they do that?” moments, Monsters is, if its claims are true, an absolutely fascinating work of cheap-as-chips cinema; given Edwards’ exhaustive war stories of the project’s production, an informed viewer will instinctively scan the screen constantly, searching for those desktop-produced digital effects, and sneaky, rushed shots obtained without a permit. Either Edwards had the best location scout known to man at his disposal, encountered several incredibly fortunate bouts of luck, or astoundingly, has managed to render complicated objects like derailed trains with scarily convincing verisimilitude.

The story itself belongs to the rare in situ breed of alien invasion films, cementing its overarching similarity most prominently to last year’s fantastic District 9. In this world, the monsters are a given; their attacks are unsurprising, even expected, while the terrorised citizens are eerily jaded scavengers, anticipating the military presence as though residing in wartime Fallujah. For all of its flaws with regard to pacing and characterisation, you certainly have not seen a monster flick quite like this…

Again, like Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, Monsters is a film keen not to make a fussy mystery out of what the beasties look like; Edwards gives us the money shot near enough in the very first scene, keen instead to focus on the story’s humanitarian aspect and bask in the quiet atmosphere of a mid-apocalyptic Mexico. The monsters themselves, relegated mostly to footage in news reports, are essentially incidental to the protagonists – to both a fault and a joy – with the plot unraveling more as a road film-come-love story than a linear survival pic, which will likely either charm or frustrate you (and possibly do a bit of both)

Andrew and Samantha are not typical horror film gore fodder; they have lives – to which Edwards devotes considerable time – and are each struggling to forge some form of connection with the other to make their trip all the more tolerable. Refreshing it is that Andrew does little to hide his attraction to the spoken-for Samantha, resulting in some drole situations, accentuated by their laid-back chemistry, no doubt a cause of the fact that the two leads are in fact a real-life couple.

When attempting to sculp more psychologically involved characters, however, Edwards’ work – largely a product of cast improvisation – comes off as pretty disingenuous. Samantha, clearly not interested in Andrew’s advances, then becomes visibly upset when he drunkenly sleeps with a local girl; if shooting for our sympathy, the scene is an abject failure, and instead, it causes her to come off as stereotypically indecisive and overly emotional. Along this same bent, plenty of contrivance follows, keeping the twosome on the most dangerous path and, of course, paired together, through the most lazily obvious of plot beats.

Though its meditative take on the usually noisy alien invasion scenario is welcome, the result is perhaps too subdued, largely sapped of tension. The dogged interest in character over incident is admirable, and the film does a decent enough job of not being boring, but the characters and their relationship simply is not interesting enough to sustain an entire film, even one running barely 90 minutes. Character motivations and interactions are uneasily uneven at times, and in retrospect, give the impression that it is all in the name of a love story that is a grand act of misdirection.

When it comes to the final-scene crunch, Sam and Andrew’s journey is much ado about little, framed by a game-changing twist which, while in fact rather brilliant, is surely the film’s first written beat, which Edwards then circumscribed with the film’s bulkier, less convincing material. The unexpected, postmodern touch is both haunting and beautiful, yet the overarching feeling is that it should probably belong in a better film.

Challenging, frustrating, and absolutely intriguing, Monsters should secure more work for the evidently talented Edwards, and despite a general lack of direction, as well as some questionably stagey, forced characterisation, this is a great-looking, well-acted, phenomenally achieved production which plays as though made for several times its apparent budget. Invariably, it gains another star for that blinding ending.

Monsters is in U.K. cinema’s now.

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This article was first posted on December 7, 2010