Monsters is, as the title suggests, a monster movie. Sort of. It’s also an impressive achievement for a first-time director, much less one who had a tiny budget and created all the effects himself on an Intel-powered computer. The basic premise is set up in about three sentences at the start of the film—that a NASA probe sent for proof of life crashed over Mexico and deposited that alien life there. It’s quarantined as an “infected” zone, but nothing the military has done in six years has really contained it, and now the creatures are simply a fact of life around the zone….
The specific story of the film follows photojournalist Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) who must escort his publisher’s daughter Sam (Whitney Able) out of Mexico before travel is suspended for six months around the infected zone. Inevitably, things go wrong, until they realize they have no choice but to go through the zone itself…where more things go wrong.
First, I loved this movie. It views in this weird combination of mystery, travelogue, and adventure movie. I can’t call it a horror movie, despite it being essentially a monster movie, because while there are horrific moments the whole is not. The whole is, in fact, more a love story than anything else—sort of an accidental love story. The moments of emotional binding between Kaulder and Sam are almost palpable, and yet the romance is not overblown or scripted or any of the other things movie love stories too often are.
Second, while you can tell watching this movie that it was not made with a large budget (tiny cast and few effects), you realize that it didn’t need a large budget. The film relies on the tension in the situation and the emotional arcs the characters are on both alone and together to keep you invested in the story. The few glimpses of the monsters you get early on make you curious to see more, while visual details in the setting (such as signs, protective clothing, military vehicles) and attitudes of the characters make them omnipresent in this world. The filming is beautiful and almost documentarian, which only makes the story more believable.
I think that’s what really drove this movie: it was believable. The places looked real and the people felt real, and that sold the situation as also being real.
As far as the effects go, I would not have guessed they were “home-grown,” so to speak, if I hadn’t known that going in. There were places where the monsters are shown in night vision situations, or on a television in the background, when they look as good as anything I’ve seen anywhere. The biggest scene with them at the end is rendered beautifully, and in the few places the effects truly look like CG, it’s still better CG than top-budget movies from five years ago.
There’s not a whole lot more I can say about this movie without giving too much away, and I think it’s better if you go in pretty blind, but my bottom line on it is “See it.” Forget comparisons to Cloverfield or District 9—Monsters is playing in a different corner of the SF theme park. It’s not a fast-paced movie, but it kept me fascinated the entire time and made me want to watch it again as soon as it was over. I am not sure how widely this movie is available just yet, but I was able to rent it on iTunes, and I think it’s releasing at the end of this month in limited distribution. If you can’t wait for a theater, do the digital rental. And if it comes to a big screen around here, I’ll definitely see it again. So, yeah, bottom line: see this movie. It’s on my shortlist for my next best SF movies of the decade list, because it’s a film I expect to still be watching in ten years, and I really can’t offer any higher praise for a movie than that.
Elena Nola is the imperial movie critic and the colder half of the Ladies of Ice and Fire.