This feature film debut from British writer-director Gareth Edwards is surely a game changer in terms of what it could potentially mean for the future of independent film-making. Edwards, a former CGI animator shot the whole film himself during a three week shoot that spanned trips to Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica, using the high definition digital format and with only a three-man production crew and two professional actors accompanying him. Working from nothing but an outline script, the details of which they improvised as they went along, Edwards and his team simply made use of the people, the places and the situations they encountered in their own journey across Central America to furnish the details of the film’s plot.
This guerrilla, off-the-cuff approach might not be that unusual in itself, but Edwards’ film is a post-apocalyptic monster movie full of seamless CGI special effects which were created back home in the director’s bedroom and later added to the footage in post-production using software from his home laptop. The resulting blend of arthouse road movie and gorgeously shot, real-world travelogue incorporating CGI animation as convincing as any you’d ever see in a major Hollywood epic like “Independence Day” (and considerably better than some of the stuff that appeared in “Cloverfield”) results in a strangely affecting little movie that is difficult to get a handle on at first: it looks like a huge studio blockbuster but cost next to nothing and feels like an intimate, low-budget, character-led indie feature.
This is inevitably going to lead to a few bewildered audiences who go in expecting a loud, effects-driven spectacle movie with no heart and an empty brain, when what they’re in fact getting is a quiet, relatively low-key evolving document of a relationship as it develops between two damaged people, set in a recognisable future against a sci-fi backdrop that echoes certain political and social developments in our own times. The closest parallel is indeed with “Cloverfield”, but “Monsters” takes place at a point in the take-over when the alien creatures of the title have become little more than an accepted part of the landscape of contemporary life for all the people we see in the film. Here, the end of the world is something that will happen on unwatched TV screens against the background chatter and trivia of our everyday lives; where bombs fall, creatures attack, villages are bombed and whole swathes of land are quarantined, all of it simply material out of which is formed our popular culture – cartoons, graffiti art, news footage etc. Normalised in this way it becomes passively accepted, just as we accept war, famine and natural disaster on a daily basis.
Perhaps the weakest element of Edwards’ film comes right at the very start, where it has been felt necessary to provide the audience with a great glob of text exposition to set the scene. In the near future, we are told, NASA launches a space probe headed for Europa -- one of the moons of Jupiter -- in search of alien life. The probe crashes on re-entry in Mexico, infecting a vast section of land inbetween Mexico itself and the American border with alien spores that grow in the trees and then hatch in nearby lakes where they become tentacled, crab-like monsters that grow to enormous, skyscraper size, rising up to float majestically through the air as they migrate across the country. The American authorities have built a huge wall right across the edge of the Infected Zone’s border, which is heavily policed by the American military in order to keep the creatures out … or rather pen them in.
The story picks up on the Mexican side of the infected zone, where we meet American photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy). Estranged from his ex-wife and from the son he never knew he had until only recently, Kaulder is assigned the task of bringing home his editor boss, Wynden’s, errant, soon-to-be-married daughter Samantha (Whitney Able), before the border is sealed off completely for an indefinite period in the authorities’ on-going battle to contain the suddenly-unusually-active alien behemoths. Against the backdrop of cities of ruined buildings, dirt track shanty towns and overcrowded hospitals full of the victims of the military action against the creatures, Kaulder and Samantha set out on the long train and ferry journey home. But a lost passport and corrupt border officials necessitate the couple making a dangerous cross-country trek through the hinterlands of the Infected zone, heading for the border that’s always in sight in the shape of the giant, monolithic wall that symbolises home …
This is in effect part relationship movie, part road movie -- with the pulsing squid-like monsters, and the military action against them, simply part of the background to the emotional development of the central characters, just as much as the people and places we see them traveling among as we follow their journey. In fact, we hardly see any living alien creatures at all until near the very end, when the event becomes a transcendent moment and the culminating event in the couple’s travels thus far, during which they finally ‘find each other’ after a lengthy, painful odyssey of survival and self-discovery.
The genius part in Gareth Edwards’ conception (and one which surely could have fallen flat on its face very quickly in less capable hands) is to have taken these natural landscapes of such regions as were traversed by the small crew during their three week shoot, and made them their locations, with the real people who inhabited them their cast -- re-contextualising them in a narrative that was being constructed on the spot from the material provided. The film is a masterpiece of editing, assembled from hundreds of hours of improvised footage with the two actors, Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, riffing and effortlessly adlibbing with the non-actors they encountered on the trip willing to take part in the film. This produces some astonishingly natural performances and enables the addition of lots of little details that imperceptibly help make the whole experience feel that much more real -- such as the shack-dwelling family the couple meet at one point, who really do use a piece of barbed wire as a clothes line. It seems uncanny how frequently the experiences and situations the crew encountered were, in true life imitates art fashion, just right for a film about alien contamination and invasion: impromptu floods and demolition sites unknowingly stumbled upon become ideal locations with the addition of a CGI tank here and a dead alien squid added to the background there; part of the plot involves alien spores contaminating the trees and necessitating that the characters be seen wearing gas masks – the Mexican swine flu epidemic happened to flare up during the shoot (causing world-wide mass panic) and meaning that many people really were walking around with gas masks on. Not all the film was shot in Central America: hurricane damage in Galveston USA also stood in for the site of a creature attack, and the resulting images of devastation, completely unaltered by CGI trickery, are particularly indelible.
All this real world detail produces an incredibly eerie effect: the recognition of our own socio-political times and very real situation, rooted in an otherwise strange and bizarre fantasy scenario, and the realisation that it probably really would be like it is shown to be here, if the events of the film did occur. The characters deal with the situation in a disconcertingly un-monster movie-like fashion: their conversations tend to be rather aimless and unfocused -- slacker-talk, about nothing very much more often than not – in which they both assume that everything will turn out all right in the end and that they will go back to their ordinary lives once they reach their destination. Going against the grain like this -- downplaying the genre’s expected use of suspense and tension in the drive to make the film’s outlandish scenario feel as natural as possible, is a risky strategy that will certainly not play well with some audiences who expect from a movie called “Monsters” nothing less than a taut, edgy thriller with constant noise and plenty of ballyhoo. Instead the stand-out moments come in quite, lyrical, improvised scenes such as the one where the couple scale an isolated Mayan pyramid temple and gaze out from the remains of one vanished civilisation towards the CGI monument symbol of their own, unaware of how much longer it will last while they, poignantly, enjoying each other’s company. The clear allusions to very real and current live issues such as the problem of Mexican immigration, the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict and the effects of Global climate change don’t need to be overly spelled out; they’re just there, constantly in the background, glimpsed every now and then in an impromptu but pertinent image the crew may have happened to accidently stumble upon and caught on film. Jon Hopkins’ music is haunting and memorable, the two leads’ characters are at first irritating and appear spoiled, but are ultimately sympathetic, and Edwards’ can’t help but throw in a few film references (primarily to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”) to show he’s not all about FX know-how. “Monsters” is a film that succeeds brilliantly at what it set out to achieve, but may find itself getting a hard time from audiences who will expect a very different kind of film; but it’s almost certainly destined for future cult status and deserves every plaudit it can muster.
Momentum Pictures bring “Monsters” to Blu-ray with a fine transfer that looks as sharp and detailed as one would expect from a contemporary movie shot in the HD digital format. The 5.1 audio surround sound showcases the fantastic soundscape created by sound designer Jürgen Funk beautifully, and the film comes with an audio commentary (with director Gareth Edwards and actors and real-life couple Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able) that cannot fail to be interesting given the trials and tribulations the two actors and the small crew had to undergo in order to make the film on location in the variety of Central American locations from which the finished cut was assembled. That story is told in even more detail in a feature-length Making Of documentary, which covers every stage of the film’s development in exacting detail. It’s such an amazing story that this documentary (which has a longer running time than the film itself) becomes just as riveting, if not more so. There’s a huge amount of behind the scenes material that shows us the difficult conditions under which the movie was made, with each day’s footage having to be edited in a string of sweaty hotel bedrooms and an impossibly tight schedule of trains to be caught and places to be necessitating many sleepless nights and early starts. Edwards’ also gives away, here, his best trick for getting to shoot guerrilla footage without first gaining permission, by simply wearing one of those yellow florescent vest-jackets -- thereby gaining an instant aura of assumed authority! As well as turning up and shooting without permission, commandeering ordinary people to take part in proceedings, and shooting loads of footage that never actually made it into the film, the crew even contrive some situations in order to create scenes, such as when they pretend to have lost their passports at the Guatemalan border and simply film the reaction of the officials there! This is a very well put-together documentary that has clearly had much more attention lavished on it than is usually the case in DVD extras these days, and coming as a package, both this and the film itself are highly recommended. The disc also includes a short film by the director and the “Monsters” trailer.