British director Gareth Edwards DIY creature-feature Monsters is a mis-matched romance, a dystopian sci-fi about alien invasion, a sly allegory about illegal immigration and a showcase for the kind of special effects work that can be constructed, with a little talent, from consumer-level digital cameras and laptops. Semi-improvised and made on a shoestring budget with a crew of two people, Monsters is a considerable achievement for the first time director, a sensitive and involving science fiction romance rich in atmosphere and mounted with distinctive style.
A short pre-credits sequence establishes that the US-Mexican border has been infested by dangerous alien beings (resembling a cross between giant spiders and glowing octopuses) that have turned the desert into a no-go zone. World-weary photographer Andrew (Scoot McNairy) has travelled to Mexico to take photographs of the aliens for a newspaper. Travelling through the “infected zone” is incredibly dangerous, with the wandering aliens attacking any humans they encounter. While waiting at the border to cross, Andrew meets rich-girl adventurer Sam (Whitney Able), who happens to be his boss’s daughter. Charged with bringing the wealthy heiress back to safety, Andrew and Sam enlist the help of a gang of local mercenaries and trek through the desert, hoping to reach the safety of America by any means necessary. The locals aren’t too concerned by the alien’s presence; they are more worried about the American military patrols scouring the desert, poisoning the land with chemical weapons.
Like every couple in every road movie ever made, cynical Andrew and cosseted Sam don’t like each other very much in the beginning but their straightened circumstances and the constant threat of imminent death slowly brings them together. The film might be titled Monsters but it might as well be called Humans, as Edwards keeps his focus on the bickering pair as they play out a tender romance against the backdrop of the alien invasion. Rather than undertake a confrontational quest to destroy the aliens, or save the world, Andrew and Sam simply exist in their changed world, getting on with their own lives as chaos falls around them.
Without the budget to deliver wall-to-wall visual thrills, Edwards places his special effects sequences carefully throughout the story, suggesting more than he shows. We catch glimpses of the alien beings from time to time, a tentacle tracing a graceful arc across a television screen or a strange glowing light emerging from the desert night. Although he is working with fewer resources, Edwards creates a complicated mood similar to the South African sci-fi District 9, combining the day-to-day practicality of getting on with things with the blind panic that comes from the threat posed by something unknown and unknowable. Monsters also shares the same underlying social critique as Blomkamp’s film, explicitly asking who are the real ‘monsters’ in the story; the aliens trying to survive in a strange world or the humans who greet their arrival with a vast military blockade?