Film Review: Monsters

This low-budget creature feature creates a rich sci-fi universe but fails to populate it with compelling characters.

With his debut feature Monsters, writer/director/special effects whiz kid Gareth Edwards accomplishes the not-insignificant task of creating a believable alternate reality for his low-budget, low-key science-fiction story. A short prologue establishes the foundation of Edwards’ parallel Earth: Six years ago, NASA dispatched a space probe to investigate signs of alien life. Upon its return, the probe crashed in the jungles of Mexico, not too far from the U.S. border. The Mexican government, with the aid of the American military, quarantined a large swath of the country, referring to it as the Infected Zone. Expats, scientists or journalists wanting to return to the States must spend a fortune to secure a spot on one of the infrequent ferries that sail around the Infected Zone or hire coyotes to escort them through the quarantined territory, avoiding both trigger-happy grunts—and gigantic monsters.

Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances, the latter route becomes the sole option available to the movie’s central characters, a pair of young Americans trying to get home amid reports of unprecedented alien activity. One of them, an ambitious news shutterbug named Andrew (Scoot McNairy), doesn’t even want to leave Mexico: He’s been volunteered for the unenviable assignment of retrieving his boss’s headstrong daughter Sam (Whitney Able), who made the impetuous decision to travel to Mexico just a few weeks shy of her wedding.

Shot on location in Central America, Monsters uses its low budget to its advantage. Instead of relying on crowd scenes and set pieces, the film establishes its reality in subtler, more effective ways. Televisions in the background broadcast a steady stream of monster-related news, posters warn travelers away from quarantined areas and savvy locals have created a shadow economy to profit from the current state of affairs. Edwards also keeps the monsters themselves largely offscreen, hinting at their presence throughout, but only revealing them in full at the end.

All of these little details add up to a world that seems lived-in, a feeling that’s enhanced by the director’s decision to tell a small, human story against this larger backdrop. In that way, Monsters has more in common with a work of speculative fiction like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road rather than action-oriented tales of the near future like District 9 and Minority Report.

If only the characters were as instantly compelling as the father and son in The Road. Sadly, Andrew and Sam are bland, boring personalities from the get-go and don’t reveal any additional dimensions as the movie progresses. According to the press notes, Edwards made a point of casting a real-life couple as his leads (though McNairy and Able have since split up) and encouraged them to improvise the majority of their dialogue, no doubt thinking that this approach would encourage sharper work from both actors and free him up to focus on the technical demands of the film. In addition to directing, Edwards acts as his own cinematographer, production designer and visual effects artist.

Unfortunately, McNairy and Able seem lost for much of the movie, as if they’re never quite certain what their director wants from them. Their flat performances lend the film a noticeable lack of tension, particularly in the second half when Sam and Andrew find themselves alone in the Infected Zone. Instead of living in a state of constant uncertainty and fear, these two appear almost nonchalant as they navigate their way to the U.S./Mexico border (now fortified by giant concrete walls that look like they belong on Skull Island). Had Edwards taken as much care crafting these characters as he did the world they exist in, Monsters may have been a cult classic in the making instead of a mildly interesting missed opportunity.