Following in the same tradition as many recent films, Monsters has a small budget (certainly when compared to the biggest of Hollywood blockbusters) but uses it to create a big impact. Not too dissimilar to surprise hit and Best Picture nominee, District 9, Monsters takes an alien invasion story and puts a fresh twist on it. The story is set in the not too distant future when aliens have invaded Earth and a zone between the U.S. and Mexican border containing them is declared “INFECTED," with a giant wall build around it.
We follow a young reporter/photographer who is tasked with protecting and evacuating the daughter of his boss from near the infected zone to back in the U.S. The trouble is that demand is high for tickets using the safe mode of transportation and through unforeseen circumstances the duo are forced to make their way through the infected zone.
Beyond the “make the most out a little” mentality that links both Monsters and District 9, their plots aren't worlds apart, either. However, where District 9 took a more political and eventually action-orientated route, Monsters focuses more on the interactions between the people and how these intrusive extra terrestrials affect them. Not that District 9 lacked that sort of heart and soul, but it’s just dealt with more prevalently here.
Now that may have been down to an artistic choice or simply because it had less money to play with. Chances are it was a combination of both, but there’s definitely a sense that with a bit more money Monsters could have been a whole lot better, perhaps even a classic of the sci-fi genre.
However, Monsters is not a bad film, far from it. The special effects of the aliens themselves are quite impressive for the small-scale and budget. Most of the time director Gareth Edwards cleverly masquerades what would otherwise be fake looking effects by having the objects (aliens, tanks, missiles etc.) far away from the camera. The combination of distance and the hustle and bustle on-screen blends the effects rather seamlessly with everything else (in that way it’s similar to the 2008 monster movie Cloverfield).
There are moments, though, where the effects are so obviously digitized that it becomes a distraction. A moment that stands out in particular is towards the end when one of the biggest aliens is revealed on-screen. We see the tentacles up-close and they are just not convincing in a scene that’s supposed to instil fear.
The title of the movie perhaps suggests a lot more action than what's actually to be found. Certainly I was expecting an all-out action film with maybe just a bit of drama thrown in. However, the human drama is where the onus is placed and surprisingly it works, for the most part anyway. There were times when I wished something would get blown up or a shoot-out would occur, but a lot of the time we’ve just got the survival and the relationship between the two main characters to watch and it’s rather well done.
The reason the drama works is partly to do with the believable and convincing dialogue, but mostly to do with the performances of the leads. Scott McNairy and Whitney Able make these characters feel like real people and make us actually care what becomes of them by film’s end. It’s an attribute that a survival movie like this needs and Monsters has it in spades.
Despite some hokey special effects (to put it mildly) and a sense of repetition throughout with its scenes (attacked, run away, then safe, attacked, run away, then safe and so forth), Monsters is an impressive and admirably creative monster movie that boasts an intimate and relatable road movie plot, mixes it with an alien invasion story and mingles those two with wider scoped political and humanitarian issues. Flawed yet interesting is always better than safe and boring.