One of the many hyperventilating press quotes that are daubed all over the posters for Monsters, an arresting low-budget sci-fi debut from British filmmaker Gareth Edwards, declares, “Believe the hype.” Well, do and don’t. If at all possible, avoid the hype. (It isn’t possible.) This film cost the measly sum of $500,000 to make, using a crew of four, and a principal cast of two, and with the remarkable Edwards acting as writer, director, production designer, cinematographer and effects designer (his background lies in effects). That it is enjoying a pretty wide release and a big marketing spend is testament to his achievement. All of the shorthand thus far is correct: it’s a bit like District 9 and Cloverfield, and it has compelling – and conscious – elements of Apocalypse Now and Jurassic Park and The Road in it. But it’s not your average post-apocalyptic sci-fi alien-invasion monster movie whichever way you cut it, and in mostly confounding genre expectation (I said mostly), it scores a lot of points. It’s also a 12A certificate – yes, that’s a 12A, suitable for children over 12 and for children under 12 if accompanied by an adult.
Because it’s been done on the hoof, and shot cheaply – with its sparing CGI work added in afterward – and because it’s about a man and a woman, played naturalistically, in peril, it reminded me of Open Water, whose monsters were also unseen. But it’s more ambitious than that, and other comparable no-budget sleeper hits. Basically, we are told that a NASA probe went up six years ago, found alien lifeforms, came back with some spores and crashed, in Mexico, which has since been designated the Infected Zone. A crumpled, roving photojournalist (Scott McNairy) is strong-armed into babysitting his proprietor’s daughter (Whitney Able) and getting her out of Mexico’s safe zone and back into the US. To do so, they are forced by a string of circumstances to cross the Infected Zone, illegally, which is how the film turns into a road movie. It’s a simple but effective set-up, and although the two-antagonists-thrown-together trope is age-old, McNairy and Able shoulder the film well, and, as an actual couple in real life, bring a certain unbottlable chemistry to their development.
I know it was part-improvised – and by the way, the South American extras who get speaking parts, notably the corrupt ferryman, are well cast – but I’m afraid some of the dialogue is inane. Even though they know they’re going through the Infected Zone, and public information films and constant rolling news about the aliens that occupy the Zone seem to be on a loop on TV, when our two heroes hear their first blood-curdling animal roar, he says, “What is that?” This duff line is repeated later on. “What is that?” It’s one of the big aliens off of the news? What do you think it is?
As the film neared its conclusion, I was just starting to congratulate it for its restraint in terms of how much alien we have actually seen, which is not much, and all the more frightening and unsettling for it. But, just as in Cloverfield, which too made a virtue of this budgetary cloaking device, the director can’t resist a “money shot.” Again, on a shoestring, it’s a technically proficient money shot, but it comes amid a sequence that I can only tell you conforms almost religiously to genre rules. That’s all I’ll say. (Peter Bradshaw was a bit free and easy with the spoilers in his rave, four-star Guardian review. I shall pull back here.)
Here’s the problem with Monsters – which I saw at the Curzon last night, unable to attend the special Q&A screening, with Gareth Edwards, much to my chagrin – it’s being over-praised, and the hype may let some audiences down with a bump. Its genesis and success (apparently it’s already made its money back before being released!) gives the media a brilliant, heartwarming story, obviously, and it’s a film that should be written about and promoted – it certainly shows up Avatar and the 3D like, which cost millions and make billions – but let’s not get carried away. Horror aficionados will be disappointed by the lack of horror. Sci-fi fans will be disappointed by the lack of sci. Teens gore-immunised by the Saw movies will wonder why they are watching a love story. Indie iconoclasts will exhale deeply when it goes down more obvious roads. Mainstream audiences lured in by the poster and the quotes and the fact that it’s showing at a cinema near them may even feel mugged. But if you go in with a clear head and realistic expectations, you will find much to admire and enough tension and tease to rank with films that cost literally 100 times as much to make.
Edwards is a massive talent – not only can he do special effects, he’s an artist as tuned in to Edward Hopper as the people who make Mad Men, believe me. (Hint: look out for the gas station.) We should give thanks that he was able to get his debut made and a lot of us get to see it in cinemas. I’m already wondering what he’d do with even a few million dollars. (Nick Roddick in Sight & Sound reckons that, given a blockbuster budget, this is a filmmaker who’d still tend towards minimalism.) Low-budget indie crossover hits are difficult to follow up. I haven’t seen Paranormal Activity 2, but I can’t see how it can repeat what the first film did, because of the first film. Did anybody else have the misfortune to see The Blair Witch Project 2? Oh dear. Because that’s what was missing from the first film: bright colours.