I’m still waiting for the day that low budget independent movies can bypass the slow methodical limited releases and be given a fighting chance to succeed amongst today’s mainstream theatrical releases. I realize the repercussions such wide releases could have should the movie completely bomb and not reach its full potential, so for now I continue to have to agonize if and when I’m going to be able to catch a movie in theaters or wait a year or more for the DVD to hit shelves. MONSTERS as directed by Gareth Edwards is a film that has been on my radar for a while now and my disappointment continued when, in its limited release was nowhere near me. Lucky, I was still able to catch the film in an experimental release structure being employed on several low budget films through such mediums as On Demand channels, ITunes, and the Playstation Network. I watched the film through the Playstation Network and though I truly prefer my initial viewing of a film to be on the big screen, the experience I had did not suffer at the hands of a smaller screen. I turned the lights down, sat in my own comfortable environment with the sound turned up and truly enjoyed watching this unique sci-fi drama filled with real character drama.
The premise of MONSTERS initially seems to be a rip-off of DISTRICT 9 with some twists of its own. A space probe was sent out to NASA to hopefully discover alien life within our own solar system, only to have it crash over Mexico. Soon after, alien life began showing up in those areas of Mexico and the United States is still struggling to contain the creatures six years after the probe crashed. Now, Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photographer, is given the task to escort his boss’ daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), from Mexico to the United States safely. Initially when you read a premise such as that you feel like you are in for some pretty hefty sci fi action and alien visuals. What you are treated with instead is a character piece with two people traveling across a country in more of a road-trip drama but with an alien invasion backdrop.
It would be easy to write this movie off and say that it doesn’t deliver on its premise or that it’s a perfect example of false advertising and it would fit the bill on one account. I feel the film delivers on its premise in various ways, there is plenty of alien footage, though not quite at DISTRICT 9 levels, and it is a movie of two characters traveling their way through a country that has been invaded by extra terrestrial life. The false advertising comes from a marketing campaign and trailers that sell the film as a tense action flick when what it really is, is a tense sci fi drama. The majority of the film is just Andrew and Samantha going from place to place, making travel arrangements, talking to each other and the people they meet along the way. The dialogue all centers around things we deal with everyday only tweaked a bit because now there are aliens as an added headache. I am a huge fan of character pieces and the mixture of drama with the sci fi background is something that I can really sink my teeth into and watch over and over.
The character of Andrew, in my opinion, is the most rounded character in the film, meaning that I believe him to be the most convincing and interesting of the two central characters. Scoot McNairy also gives the better of the two performances as Whitney Able’s performance falls flat on more than one occasion, but at other times seems very genuine and likeable. Though the film tries desperately to make a relationship grow between the two characters I felt like while I liked the chemistry between the two leads, the speed at which the relationship is allowed to bloom hindered its believability a little bit. I feel like that is more of a nitpick than a harsh criticism because I bought the two could have feelings for each other, but given the time span of which it happens seems a little less convincing.
As far as the alien activity in the movie, as I mentioned this film is first and foremost a drama that focuses on the human characters with the aliens being a secondary aspect. Anyone coming in expecting lots of explosions and gunfights involving aliens and alien weaponry are going to be extremely disappointed. It’s not all ho-hum romantic drama though, there are several scenes that involve the aliens, which look fantastic, think a cross between a Lovecraft monster and the Tri-Pods from WAR OF THE WORLDS. They are very large and by the looks of the destructive scenery have the capability to cause immense amounts of devastation. You cannot think of them as an enemy because they were brought to the planet by mistake and are simply adapting to their new environments which just so happens to be ours. As powerful and intimidating as their presence is throughout the film they are very beautiful looking creatures and becomes even more so in the climactic scene. The last few minutes of the film are absolutely gorgeous, and add that final exclamation point to a very engaging film. The effects on a reported $15,000 are pretty astounding. While they are far from photorealistic towards the end it is still pretty mesmerizing to look at.
Low budget cinema is presenting audiences with gems around every corner and MONSTERS, despite some minor flaws really embodies the spirit and wonder of imagination that independent movies offer. The impressive visuals and alien design will probably have hardcore sci fi enthusiasts begging for more than they are given, but the use of the aliens as a background to the emotional and human struggles at the center of the film make the film extremely entertaining. It doesn’t quite reach the greatness of recent sci fi gems like DISTRICT 9 and MOON; it no doubt deserves to at least be mentioned in the same sentence due to what the filmmakers accomplished with such limited financial resources.