SXSW 2010 Review: 'Monsters'


There's a lot to admire in the indie sci-fi / horror piece Monsters: It manages to create a post-apocalyptic landscape on a very modest budget; it comes from a group of UK filmmakers, but it stars Americans and takes place in Mexico; and, despite its title and a slick handful of creepy giant monsters, the film is actually more about humans than it is about, well, monsters. Indie film fans and festival-goers may get my meaning when I describe Monsters as a "mumblefield" film, but that's just movie nerd shorthand for "it's a monster movie that focuses on two young people who spend a lot of time discussing things."

The premise is pretty nifty: It's several years after a space probe has crashed in Central Mexico, and that particular section of the country is pretty much infested with giant monsters. Created with care and detail, presented on the screen through some rather clever means, the creatures look like they flopped right out of an H.P. Lovecraft nightmare: they're stadium-sized "clawed octopus" beasties, and their menace is not limited to sheer size and clumsiness. Turns out the beasts also exude a noxious gas that will kill you if you don't have a gas mask nearby.

So a large section of Mexico is walled off. There are ferries that can take people to and from the safety of the United States, but unfortunately our poor heroes are unable to afford the safe route. Andrew, you see, is a photojournalist who is always on the lookout for some rubble left behind by the monsters, but a phone call from the BIG boss means that Andrew has a new assignment: to transport the man's gorgeous daughter Samantha to the safety of American shores. Easier said than done? Absolutely.

Sort of an indie flick cross between Terrence Malick and a Godzilla movie, Monsters is a fascinatingly low-key approach to the rather standard "monsters gone wild!" concept. First off, and I hope this doesn't turn you off to the film, Monsters is not a rock 'em, sock 'em, ass-kick of a monster movie. Indeed, long stretches of the film flit by with nary a monster to be seen, but that's how we know that the filmmakers are considerably more interested in the human element than they are in the gigantic, gross, and other-worldly. (But once the monsters do make their appearances, the sci-fi/horror junkies will probably have a grand old time with the Cthulhu-esque monstrosities.)

The two leads (Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able) are practically the only characters in the film, and the performers deliver consistently excellent work -- particularly as the film goes on and they begin warming to each other in refreshingly realistic ways. Even more interesting are the subtler touches that writer/director Gareth Edwards employs, such as his observation that, after the impact of an alien threat, most human beings would learn (and learn quickly) how to be just a little bit kinder to one another. The low-key approach extends to the journey as well: the desolation and destruction work as melancholy set pieces, which lends the film a soft-spoken realism that makes the creatures a little creepier and the leads' burgeoning love affair a little bit sweeter.

Definitely not the action-packed gore-fest that its title may imply, Monsters is instead a road movie, a romantic drama, a post-apocalyptic thriller, and a nifty little parable about the human condition all rolled into one. As such, and for a few additional reasons that'd fall under the category of "spoiler," I dug Monsters a lot.