Gareth Edwards’ low-budget science-fiction film Monsters is both a testament to what the latest technologies allow filmmakers to do, and—on the downside—a testament to the enduring importance of a good script. Monsters is set on Earth in the near future, after giant alien creatures have landed and the U.S. military has quarantined them in an “infected zone” in northern Mexico. Scoot McNairy plays a photojournalist who hangs around outside the zone, snapping pictures of the corpses that have been stacking up, both from monster attacks and as collateral damage in the war against the monsters. McNairy’s publisher wants his daughter (Whitney Able) escorted to the border, but McNairy and Able get knocked off-course and end up traveling through the zone, where they learn a little about what’s really going on in the places where civilians aren’t supposed to be.
Edwards shot the semi-improvised Monsters on the fly, and positions it more as a romantic travelogue with occasional glimpses of 50-foot-tall beasties than as an effects-laden action-adventure. He uses his Mexican location well, exploiting the exoticism of dusty villages and ancient jungle temples, all while coaxing strong performances from McNairy and Able. The effects-work is stunning, especially toward the end, when the heroes get their first long look at the wall penning in the aliens, and at the aliens themselves. Rather than using the effects to dazzle or shock, Edwards goes for awe, and comes up with moments that are staggeringly poetic and provocative—right up to an ending guaranteed to get viewers arguing about its meaning.
But those moments are all too rare in Monsters, overwhelmed by a conventional “mismatched would-be lovers on the run” plot that Edwards and his cast treat with way too much reverence. The dialogue is bland and familiar, and the approach so down-to-Earth/slice-of-life that Monsters is frequently tedious. Edwards takes some big chances in setting out to make a movie in which the genre elements are deep in the background rather than front-and-center. He’s said that his intent was to begin where most monster movies end. So why does Monsters feel like it never gets started?