By audaciously turning inside out the narrative conventions of traditional sci-fi thrillers about extraterrestrial invaders, “Monsters” offers a uniquely satisfying entertainment that may nonetheless pose formidable marketing challenges. The title creatures appear only fleetingly during writer-director-lenser Gareth Edwards’ arresting indie, which concentrates more on the human drama of characters under pressure while traveling through what is essentially a war zone. Some critics will be quick to parse the pic for sociopolitical metaphors, but mainstream auds might complain about unfulfilled expectations. Theatrical and homevid prospects will depend on the effectiveness of a carefully targeted ad campaign.
Opening scenes briskly establish the pic’s premise: A humongous swath of Mexico has been quarantined after squidlike creatures crash-landed there as stowaways aboard a NASA space probe. Occasionally, some of the enormous extraterrestrials wander outside the officially designated”infected zone” to destroy lives and property. For the most part, though, the threat is contained within an area to the north — along the U.S.-Mexico border — by a colossal fence.
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Photojournalist Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is on assignment in Mexico, eager to take pictures of the creatures, when he’s ordered to escort Sam (Whitney Able), his publisher’s daughter, to a far-off port where she can board a U.S.-bound ferry. Due to bad timing and worse luck, however, Sam is unable to leave on schedule, forcing Kaulder to find other, riskier ways of getting her back to the States.
Edwards begins”Monsters” with a bravura faux-verite sequence, as heavily armed U.S. troops attack a multitentacled beast on the streets of a Mexican city. For a long time after that, however, the pic settles into a doggedly realistic, almost neorealistic mode, as Kaulder and Sam establish an amicable but wary relationship while making their way first to the port city, and eventually into the infected zone.
Here and elsewhere in”Monsters,” the dialogue is fluidly improvised and the emotions, even during jokey interludes, are bluntly expressed. The sense of verisimilitude is skillfully sustained as Kaulder and Sam journey through the infected zone led by native-born ferrymen and heavily armed mercenaries.
At times, the picture recalls suspenseful treks through war-ravaged landscapes in dramas as diverse as”Apocalypse Now” (which is none-too-subtly referenced before the opening clash) and”Salvador.” The big difference is that, instead of worrying about Viet Cong irregulars or right-wing militia, the protagonists here must guard against attacks by giant squids. A nice touch: While the Americans are repeatedly shocked, the locals take an almost matter-of-fact approach to avoiding danger.
Edwards and a small production team reportedly shot”Monsters” guerrilla-style in various locales throughout Guatemala and Mexico, using local nonprofessionals in supporting roles and dropping CGI effects into the mix — everything from army tanks to mile-high fences — after the fact. But the most spectacular f/x aren’t really f/x at all: Climactic scenes were shot in areas of Galveston, Texas, devastated by Hurricane Ike.
Edwards attempts a tricky balance of gritty-indie style and horror-movie substance — if John Cassavetes had ever made a sci-fi thriller, it probably would’ve looked and sounded a lot like this — and he pulls it off with an improbable degree of success. Credit must also go to McNairy and Able, whose unaffectedly naturalistic and sympathetic performances ground”Monsters” in reality, and editor Colin Goudie, who keeps the pic seamless and suspenseful.