Monsters – Low-fi sci-fi: British filmmaker Gareth Edwards turns a small budget into a big success

Monsters - Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) & Sam Wynden (Whitney Able)

British special effects wiz Gareth Edwards proves that less is more with his splendid feature film debut Monsters.

With a budget of under $500,000 – less than 1/400th of the amount splurged by Disney on Tron: Legacy – Edwards has come up with a genre-blurring gem that combines elements of sci-fi creature feature, road movie and indie romance. Put another way, Monsters is District 9 meets It Happened One Night, with a dash of Mumblecore.

Despite the come-on title, the creature-feature aspect of Monsters isn’t the film’s biggest element, but it does supply its context. Here’s the background info you need: a NASA space probe bearing extraterrestrial organisms from one of Jupiter’s moons has crashed in Mexico. Six years on, the alien bugs have thrived in their new home and a large slice of northern Mexico has become an “Infected Zone”. To keep the alien creatures out, the United States has erected a huge wall and its warplanes are zealously policing the skies.

Monsters - Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy)

Our heroes are a pair of Americans who have become stranded on the wrong side of the zone. Andrew Kaulder (played by the wonderfully named Scoot McNairy, star of Mumblecore movie In Search of a Midnight Kiss) is a cynical photojournalist hoping to capture pictures of the elusive creatures and their victims, and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) is the daughter of his media tycoon boss.

Sam’s been slightly injured in a botched US airstrike and Kaulder is given the task of escorting her to a Mexican port and ensuring she catches a ferry back to the US and her fiancé. Neither is thrilled with the arrangement, but as their travel plans go increasingly awry, forcing them to try to make their way across the no-go zone at the very time of year when the aliens are most active, they gradually draw closer together.

Rich girl and working stiff, thrown together by chance and sent on a journey. Initial dislike turning to love. We’ve seen this story arc before, haven’t we? Yes, dozens of times, from the sublime It Happened One Night in 1934 to the ridiculous Leap Year in 2010. Take the monsters out of Monsters and you’ve got the basic plot for many a romance. These days, it’s a set-up that disappoints more often than not. Here, for a change, the ill-matched duo’s developing relationship is actually convincing thanks to the chemistry between McNairy and Able – a couple in real life.

Monsters - Sam and Kaulder (Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able)

McNairy and Able are the only professional actors in the film, which Edwards shot on the hoof in Central America, recruiting locals to play their part in the action and getting his leads to improvise most of their dialogue. He added the special effects later, in his bedroom.

That the effects are used sparingly only adds to the film’s power. For most of the story, we don’t actually see any alien creatures, but their existence adds an undertow of menace to everything that takes place during the couple’s journey.

We see signs of devastation everywhere the pair go. What, though, is the main cause of the destruction? The aliens, or the human efforts to contain them? As Sam and Kaulder get closer to the US border, and to their own terrifying but strangely beautiful close encounter with the giant squid-like alien creatures, the film’s political implications become more and more striking.

Just as District 9 used sci-fi to take a fresh look at the legacy of apartheid, Monsters points to a rich seam of contemporary wrong-headedness. War on terror, war on drugs, war on immigrants, war on giant squid-like aliens. Add up the collateral damage and ask yourselves who are the real monsters?

On general release.

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