Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able, Mario Zuniga Benavides, Annalee Jefferies
After 2016’s Rogue One, Gareth Edwards is a household name now. Directing a Star Wars spin-off tends to have that effect on your career. He’d already been put on the map with 2014’s Godzilla, a far better film than it’s often given credit for, but when it comes to the film that kick started his career and led him to such opportunities? Well, it’s criminally under seen. His debut feature film, Monsters, came out in 2010 and went rather under the radar outside of the film community. A low budget sci-fi film with a title like this could be mistaken for B-movie fodder and would seriously undervalue just how good it is. Even watching it for the umpteenth time, it’s clear why he was given so much money for Godzilla and some creative freedom for Rogue One.
Disclaimer: I will be discussing this in quite a bit of detail, so if you’ve not seen it, spoilers ahead.
Monsters is a low-key film, primarily set in Mexico in a fictional future where NASA accidentally unleashed alien life forms back on Earth and there’s an infected zone. It follows two characters, one a photographer for a newspaper, and the other the daughter of the newspaper owner. We follow them as they essentially try to make their way home. The film was shot guerrilla style, for just shy of half a million dollars and primarily edited on laptops in bedrooms. It’s a meagre budget for any film, but particularly for one in the sci-fi genre, so it’s a testament to Edwards and his team that it looks so good. He already had a reputation of sorts for effects anyway, his short film Factory Farmed having inspired the production company to put up the money to get this made.
It stands up as one of the more thought-provoking sci-fi films I’ve seen and it has a different edge. It would have been so easy to tell another story of humans defying limits and fighting back against such monsters, however Monsters entirely avoids that line of narrative and actually looks at a much lesser told story within sci-fi. Edwards gets things off to a brisk start, once we’ve seen some subtitles we’re then shown footage, shot through the eyes of soldier’s night vision, that appears to be the very end of the film. It’s disjointing but curious. From early on, we know that the film is more interested in exploring the after effects of the events. There’s an element of a war film to Monsters. It’s looking at how a huge event has changed life for the innocent people in the area who have nowhere else to go.
It’s a story of humans. You could interpret the title as being a reflection of that, that we’re the real monsters. In the film, as the pair travel, we see people displaced, those trying to retain a normal life despite the very odd things going on daily around them. We see how money plays a huge factor and once again how it pays to be rich. It looks at how areas are left to be run down, or where wars and the military have passed through, the destruction left behind. It always makes me think of the situation on the border and in Juarez with the drugs cartels. I’m not so sure Edwards intended that but it’s a reading I always seem to come away with. Despite now being seven years old, that is still interesting and the whole premise of there being a cordoned off section, and a wall around America are particularly poignant today. Obviously there’s no way that Edwards could have predicted that, nor did he intend for the social-economic commentary that does naturally come across, but it’s interesting and something I didn’t think about so much when I first saw it as I did this time.
At times, Monsters feels like a documentary, or found footage film. That’s a compliment to his approach. His lead actors are incredibly natural and convincing and the small set-up ensured the locals they came across had no idea what they were filming and essentially just went along with it. Outside of Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, no other professional actors were used, so it’s impressive that it’s not a detraction from the leads, or a distraction at any point. It helps that realism. Edwards and the crew shot on location, scouting and finding them as they travelled. Some of the best shots in the film, one where our leads stumble from a raucous festival to candlelit vigil to remember lost ones, was pure chance. It’s a process that some would find terrifying but he found freedom and inspiration in.
For a film where the camera is primarily focused on just two people, he had to nail the casting and it works. McNairy and, now wife, Abel are perfect. At the beginning they’re forced together so they’re awkward and distant. Their relationship is allowed to blossom naturally and believably throughout the film. I can imagine some felt cheated by having to wait almost three-quarters of the way in to see full shots of the monsters, only for them to still remain the secondary focus. Edwards takes that bold approach though, leaving room to reflect on what such a huge event would mean to everyday people and how two people get to know one another. So in the end, the pay-off for patience is not in seeing the monsters, but in the leads relationship. The idea of how do you go back to normality, back to everyday life and going home when you don’t want to are allowed to be played out and explored.
Monsters is strikingly beautiful too. It plays with light, with expansive landscapes and in how insignificant man is amongst nature. There’s plenty of well composed shots of our two leads at distance so that they are ant-like among mountains. It certainly makes very good use of the things or locations they stumbled across without ever being over the top about them. Even where the monsters are involved, the destruction is normal, we never see them taking on huge landmarks it’s just part of everyday life. There’s several clever shots whereby our characters are approaching huge man-made structures, and these are much eerier than how lonely they looked amongst the trees. It’s subtle things like this that put across the ideas and story so well. Edwards was in charge of the cinematography, as well as the visual effects, and handles both like a film-maker with much more experience and resource under his belt. The design of the monsters is clever. They look like sort of giant space octopus, so they aren’t too outlandish, but you know they’re not earth-born from the fluorescent glow and attraction to energy.
It’s a film that manages to balance itself well too. At times, some of the shots of the devastation, or those caught up in the wrong place, are hard to take but it’s balanced by the humour between the leads or the kindheartedness of strangers. You wouldn’t necessarily guess that there wasn’t really a firm script in place because it works. With the wrong person at the helm, or people in the parts, the dialogue may have been clunky or overwrought with sentimentality. That never happens with Monsters. It feels like it could be you or me in that situation and that’s probably how we’d be dealing with it too.
It’s likely that Monsters won’t be regarded as Edwards best, current consensus is certainly on that being Rogue One, but it’s an impressive debut. Allowance is often made for a director’s first, that they’ll do bigger and better, but there’s very little to criticise in this film. Some won’t enjoy the slow pace, or lack of monsters, but it’s a visual joy and a well told narrative with interesting ideas. How people interpret a film and its intentions will likely always vary from the director and the more I watch this, the more I see or think about. Such as the final scenes in the gas station. Whether or not this reading was intended, I’ll likely never know, but as the monsters came in, in search of energy, I liked the irony that we as humans are also guilty of destruction in the hunt for energy, much like the creatures.
Edwards should be an inspiration to young, budding directors everywhere. There’s a behind the scenes documentary that’s eye opening and fascinating. He’s opportunistic but he’s got an eye for a shot and for narrative. Seemingly from that documentary, he’s a dream for actors too. He has a clear vision, but he’s open to suggestions and happy to work with them. Godzilla was the film that gave him a huge budget, though he still retained a human feel, a father/son relationship being key and then there’s Rogue One. A phenomenal piece of work and a war movie, drawing on strengths he displayed here, it’s interesting to see him given far more in terms of resources, but retaining his identity as a film-maker. He’s certainly a director I’m likely to keep following.