THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
You may have heard a thing or two about Monsters. The film, which is in limited theatrical release but also available on demand, has earned strong buzz due to the fact that writer/director Gareth Edwards made it for just under $500,000 and did all the CGI on a personal computer in his bedroom, using off-the-shelf software. That's pretty impressive. However, a great backstory does not necessarily make a movie worthwhile. You've got to tell a story well and populate it with characters an audience wants to spend two hours with. In other words, I'm not telling you to see Monsters because it was made in an interesting or impressive way, I'm telling you to see it because it's a good movie.
Six years prior to the story's events, NASA sent a probe into space to explore the possibility of alien life. On the way back, their probe, carrying samples, crashed over Central America. New, unexplained life forms began popping up, some of which resemble gigantic octopuses. A "quarantined zone" was established in northern Mexico, with a massive wall erected to keep the creatures from entering the United States.
That wall becomes a destination for American photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy), who is tasked with bringing his wealthy publisher's daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) back to America. As things often go when it comes to sneaking from one country to another, the rich are able to afford a nice ferry that will take them to safety. Everyone else has to make a run for the border, right through the quarantined zone. Andrew and Samantha, having experienced some unforeseeable money difficulties, end up having to take the latter approach.
You may be thinking that Monsters is to the immigration issue what District 9 was to Apartheid. Yes and no. While the political subtext is certainly there, this movie doesn't hammer its metaphor home quite as powerfully as Neil Blomkamp's sci-fi masterpiece did, and it has much less overt action. Monsters is more about what happens emotionally between the two characters as they try to find a way to navigate the obstacles necessary to make their journey. Nevertheless, both pictures deserve credit for successfully grounding science fiction/horror concepts in something real.
When the creatures are shown, they're certainly menacing. There's a creepy scene in which Andrew and Samantha are briefly stranded on a boat, while one of the beings makes its presence underwater known. More intriguing, though, is the subtle suggestion that the monsters are not, in fact, as bad as they appear. One minor character informs the couple that "if you don't bother them, they won't bother you." There's an interesting vibe running underneath the story, one questioning the commonly-held belief that whatever is unknown or different must automatically be dangerous.
The heart of Monsters, however, is not the monsters but rather the people. Andrew and Samantha both reveal themselves to be wounded souls, running from personal demons that may, at some level, be more frightening to them than the physical demons they occasionally confront. McNairy and Able (married in real life) convincingly show us how the characters are forced to open up to one another - to trust - in order to survive. This leads to a concluding scene that is as haunting for what it doesn't tell us as it is for what it does.
Monsters may not have enough of the titular creatures to please some horror fans; there's really not any blood and gore to be found. However, there are sympathetic characters dealing with things that have actual societal significance. Gareth Edwards doesn't let the topicality of the immigration issue swallow everything else, but it's there for you to think about if you choose to. Or you can just enjoy Monsters as a drama about two people coming together during an inordinately stressful experience. Either way, the film is atmospheric and inventive, a little indie worth looking for.
( out of four)
Monsters is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 37 minutes.