At some point in the not too distant future, or maybe it's the recent past, American xenophobia about the Mexican border isn't concerned with migrant laborers or drug cartels, but fear of extraterrestrials. Comparisons are perhaps inevitable to 2009's District 9 and its tale of E.T. apartheid, and while it is certainly easy to read political commentary in the central couple's flight north and the ugly border wall that makes an appearance late in Gareth Edwards' debut feature, the emphasis is on romance. Although the title suggests this is a creature feature, love story trumps sci-fi in this genre hybrid. Monsters screened at the Toronto International Film Festival in advance of its late October release. This efficient, low-budget drama is geared toward the arthouse crowd, but genre buffs will want to get a look at its titular monsters.
It is six years after a NASA space probe containing samples of extraterrestrial life broke apart over Mexico. Perhaps if the accident had happened over, say, the fjords of Scandinavia, it might not have been such a disaster, because maybe the gigantic creatures would not survive or breed so easily in the cold. They adapt perfectly to the Central American rain forest and much of Mexico and points south are huge containment zones, bombarded on a regular basis as the US military tries to eradicate the alien creatures. For photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), the catastrophe represents opportunity, while his publisher's daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), is simply a tourist trying to return to the safety of the United States. With the situation becoming ever more perilous, Andrew's boss orders the reluctant photographer to escort Samantha north to the border. There is only way to get back home and that is overland on the migrant route, deep in alien territory.
Writer/director Gareth Edwards' background is in visual effects, so it's not surprisingly an area of strength for him. The screen is strewn with the aftermath of alien invasion and the violent steps taken to combat it: destroyed buildings, crashed planes, sunken ships, and extraterrestrial corpses, along with the occasional skirmish. With a small budget, he is stingier at showing the full-blown living creatures, but when he does, they are truly magnificent. Scary, yes, but glowing orange, they are also beautiful, at once awful and awe-inspiring.
What is bound to disappoint a lot of sci-fi fans is that the titular monsters take a back seat to Andrew and Samantha. McNairy and Able, who have married since making the movie, have terrific chemistry, making the love story that slowly develops, completely credible. It would be a shame if romance buffs skipped this one out of disinterest for the creature premise, because it is a pleasure to watch that relationship unfold.
Edwards plays with time: a subtitle reading "six years ago" suggests that Monsters takes place now, but there are no cell phones, electronic devices or cars. The English filmmaker also plays with geography, locating a rain forest and a pyramid just south of the U.S. border. There is nothing necessarily wrong with futzing with either, but those elements become distracting and so are the film's biggest weakness. On balance, though, Monsters is enormously satisfying in the way it combines suspense, romance and sci-fi. It heralds a bright new talent in Edwards. If he can do all this for no money, imagine what he can do with a real budget.
Distributor: Magnet Releasing
Cast: Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy
Director/Screenwriter: Gareth Edwards
Producer: Allan Niblo and James Richardson
Rating: R for language
Running time: 94 min
Release date: October 29, 2010