2.5 out of 5
Sometimes being both a film critic and an aspiring filmmaker leaves my cinematic loyalties divided. From time to time I'll watch a film I don't enjoy and don't think was very good but still respect. Monsters is just such a film. A shoe-string, navel-gazing, largely improvised sci-fi, this movie stands at the cross roads of quality and ambition.
Set in Mexico long after an invasive alien species brought to Earth by a crashing space probe has infested most of the country, Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is a scuzzy photojournalist itching for a scoop from inside the military enforced quarantine zone. A zone that stretches from Central Mexico all the way up to the US border. Without warning Andrew is waylaid and ordered by his boss to escort his temperamental daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) to a port at the coast before the zone is sealed off for six months. The unwilling duo head for the boat back to the States. The expected sexual tension occurs but Samantha is engaged. It isn't hard to tell however that she is having second thoughts. Andrew makes his move but is soundly rebuked. Instead he beds a local girl who promptly robs him of passports, money and tickets. Now stuck in Mexico, Samantha pawns her engagement ring and the two head off into the heavily infested quarantine zone with a cadre of armed guards. Isn't long before the guards are slaughtered by roaming creatures. Andrew and Samantha must trek to the border on their own.
Monsters was written and directed by British filmmaker Gareth Edwards. He was also solely responsible for the special effects. Which for a one man job and only a $500,000 budget are pretty damn good. Even if the creatures themselves are kind of lame. Edwards also knocks it out of the park with his visuals. The locations are lush and the sequences are beautifully composed. Edwards makes the two human refugees appear dwarfed by the overgrown, towering landscape. The production design is also excellent. I especially liked how the main characters frequently have to wear gas masks to guard against contamination. It's a nice touch which gives many scenes a slightly surreal bent. Most amazing of all Edwards shot the entire thing with a of crew five and a cast of two. Trundling about Central America in a van. That takes tremendous ambition, vision and balls to even attempt something like that. Let alone pull it off.
And yet, Monsters still isn't a very a good movie. For two vital reasons: the performances are bad and the script is MIA. You see while Edwards was trying to improvise a film on a mountainside in Mexico, he realized it would be a lot easier if he didn't have to stick to the script. So he threw it out, gave the actors scene objectives and let them do it their way. As result almost all the scenes are terribly improvised and the already weak story gets much weaker. Sure McNairy and Able look pretty and I'm sure with a good screenplay they could both turn in a dynamite performance, but neither of them can improvise to save their lives. Dialogue ranges from obscenely pretentious to unbelievably clunky. Both actors are also repeatedly guilty of a cardinal screenwriting sin: needless exposition. Without a solid script to guide them, the pair (who are actually husband and wife) just aren't compelling enough on their own to make you like or even care about their characters. Worse still is that the actors, lacking careful and nuanced direction, end up relying on stock emotional reactions which they repeat mechanically throughout the film at the appropriate times. McNairy in particular. It's like acting by numbers. Which is sad because it makes this wonderfully ambitious project an incredibly boring movie.
Final Verdict: Gorgeous and wonderfully ambitious, but severely lacking in terms of acting and story.