In the zone: Gareth Edwards’ Monsters

Poster for Monsters“It’s not what I was expecting…”

As the end credits roll on Monsters, British director Gareth Edwards’ first theatrical feature, the gentleman sitting behind me says what many viewers might well be thinking.

The film’s set-up is this: a space probe returning to Earth explodes over Mexico, scattering spores that grow into giant, octopus-like aliens. These aliens, known to the population as simply ‘creatures’, turn large parts of the country into a no-go area, a huge ‘infected zone’. Six years later, a photo-journalist on assignment in Mexico (Scoot McNairy) is given the task of bringing his boss’s daughter (Whitney Able) home safely to America. So far, so ‘multi-million-dollar blockbuster’, right?

Wrong. While Monsters’ upfront title and the kinetic build of its US trailer suggest a modern survival-horror romp in the vein of Cloverfield, the reality is that it’s more of a quietly affecting road movie – a film that burns slowly, ultimately offering more of an arthouse experience than a destructive thrill ride. Its story is told entirely from the viewpoint of its two lead characters. There are no gung-ho politicians; no scientists battling to cure the infection and save the country. Instead, Monsters is a tale of a subtly building relationship and, ultimately, personal realisation – for its characters and its audience.

Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy in MonstersThat’s not to say, however, that the film doesn’t deliver on the visuals. While the tentacled creatures, absent from the publicity material, are the obvious draw, the believable and detailed world that was created for this film is just as entrancing. That Monsters feels so grounded in (its own) reality, rather than a cartoonish ‘movie world’, is astonishing. It was no small wonder for to me learn, after seeing the film, that much of the devastation and dereliction shown on screen was created in post-production (by Gareth Edwards himself – the director began his career as a visual effects artist). The joins don’t show.

Scoot McNairy in MonstersWhat’s perhaps easier to see is the debt the film owes to the Spielberg oeuvre. Its two big set-pieces doff their caps to Jurassic Park, War Of The Worlds and Close Encounters, and there’s a tension running through the entire picture, which at its most heightened brings to mind Jaws. In Monsters, even when the aliens aren’t on screen (which is for about 90 per cent of the movie), you can feel their unnerving presence. For the audience, it feels like creeping through a lion enclosure, blindfolded.

With its dialogue largely made up on the spot by its two lead actors, a budget a fraction of the size of most modern theatrical releases (science-fiction or otherwise) and scenes shot mostly on the hoof, Monsters is an astounding achievement. What’s on screen transcends the film’s cottage-industry production in a way I’ve not seen before in this genre, while its narrative reverberates long after the cinema seats have flipped up, text and subtext merging into a magnetic melancholy.

The bottom line is: if you’re hankering after a fast-paced, all-guns-blazing adventure, forget it. If, on the other hand, you’re in the mood for more stately and conceptual science-fiction, Monsters has much to offer. In some ways, it even feels like the perfect genre film for this Christmas season. Like the best gifts, it might not be what you’re expecting, but it might be just what you want.

Monsters opens nationwide in the UK on 3 December 2010. Visit the official site.

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