Pick of the week: "Monsters"

"Predators" meets "Sin Nombre" in a moody, gripping road-movie romance set in alien-infested Mexico

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published October 29, 2010 12:30AM (EDT)

A still from "Monsters"
A still from "Monsters"

It's tough to strike the right tone in writing about "Monsters," the debut feature from British writer-director Gareth Edwards (who until now was a TV special-effects guy), because I want to convince you to see it but I don't want to hype it so much that the surprise is ruined. Let's put it this way: I'm definitely grading on a curve with "Monsters," which has been hotly debated since its premiere at SXSW earlier this year. It was shot on the fly in Central America for almost no money, with much of the dialogue improvised by actors Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy (and a bunch of extras who often believed they were appearing in a documentary), and it hits my sweet spot in various ways.

Still, I think Edwards does a lot of different things with craft and delicacy: "Monsters" is a road movie, a love story, an allegory about immigration and power relations between the United States and Mexico, a lo-fi indie drama and, yes, an apocalyptic monster movie, all at the same time. Given the limitations ... no, forget it, screw the limitations. However you slice it, "Monsters" is a dynamite little film, loaded with atmosphere, intelligence, beauty and courage. It echoes lots of other movies, but it isn't quite like anything else you've seen this year, or last year, or the one before that. I mean that roughly 98 percent in a good way.

It's easy to come up with comparatives that give you some idea of "Monsters," but none of them quite does the movie justice. What I wrote in my notebook was "'Sin Nombre' meets 'Predator,'" which is pretty good. "The Year of Living Dangerously" meets "District 9" also gets you close. Edwards has observed that "Monsters" might have more in common with "Lost in Translation" or "Before Sunrise" than it does with most movies about giant space aliens on the rampage. Edwards uses his skills with PC-based effects software to create the enormous and impressive octopus-spider thingies who have turned much of the U.S.-Mexico border region into the "Infected Zone," but they are literally background to the story of cynical photographer Andrew Kaulder (McNairy) and button-nosed rich girl Sam Wynden (Able).

Kaulder is a rakish single dude hustling a living in Mexico, on the fringes of the alien-plagued zone. As he tells Sam, her dad's publication will pay him $50,000 for a shot of a child killed by the creatures. "Know what I get for a picture of a happy child? Nothing." Sam's been working in Mexico as a do-gooder, and was slightly injured in an American airstrike aimed at the night-roaming creatures; her dad has commissioned Kaulder to get her out of there, by whatever means and at whatever price. Like such couples in road movies since time immemorial, they don't much like each other but feel both a mutual attraction and a mutual need: She speaks much better Spanish (and has a sunnier attitude), while he's the one with the roguish street-smarts (and the self-destructive tendencies).

Because of a tequila-and-hooker-related screw-up, Kaulder can't put Sam on the gray-market $5,000 ferryboat ride to the U.S., and they've got to cross the quarantined zone by land, with a team of bodyguards. So there we are, riding along with the misfit duo out of "It Happened One Night" across central Mexico, where a NASA probe returning from deep space broke up six years earlier, scattering alien biological samples across the landscape. Mind you, local people seem more concerned about the U.S. airstrikes -- which may involve chemical weapons -- than about the aliens themselves. In a spooky-supernatural sequence that would do James Cameron proud, Edwards reveals exactly why the Americans are bombing so intensively. By tiptoeing right up to the brink of the Abyss of Total Obviousness, we can observe that "Monsters" verges on War on Terror metaphor, and that Edwards' title is purposefully ambiguous. As in, exactly who are the monsters? Hmmm?

Maybe the improvised quality of "Monsters," and its guerrilla-style location photography in Mexico, Central America and Texas, will limit the film's marketplace potential. Monster-movie buffs are already airing their disappointment on the Internet, which may reflect more on Magnolia Pictures' marketing campaign than the movie itself. But let's reiterate: If you're going to get all pissy about the fact that a movie called "Monsters" isn't all that much of a monster movie, I don't want to hear it. Go rent "Alien vs. Predator" again. This is not that kind of thing, or anywhere close to it.

"Monsters" isn't slick or expensive enough to be a big pop hit -- compared to a modestly scaled CGI flick like "District 9," "Monsters" is a home movie -- but it also isn't slow or mumbly or affectless enough to become a critic's darling. Considering that Edwards spent a reported $15,000 on the film, the effects are amazingly good. Instead, this is a '70s-style hybrid, a genre movie with a guy, a girl and some thrills and chills that also embodies some artistic ambition and sharp-eyed social criticism (both of which the viewer is free to take or leave).

For me, though, the fact that Edwards shot in real places as he found them, and relied on the natural chemistry between a real-life couple (Able and McNairy are now married), lends this outlandish story much of its realism, power and suspense. Maybe Mexico and Guatemala and Belize are not literally infested with giant alien squid-creatures, but they are disaster areas in many ways, and as Edwards covertly suggests, those of us north of the border bear some responsibility for that. And then there's the film's gorgeous final scene, shot at an abandoned gas station in south Texas, in which all the themes of "Monsters" coalesce in a few minutes of spectacular cinematic poetry. Complain about this film's shortcomings all you want, tell me I'm overpraising it, etc. Fine. But check that out, and then try to tell me it's not one of the best movie endings you've ever seen.

"Monsters" opens Oct. 29 at the Sunshine Cinema in New York and the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles; Nov. 5 in Boston, Dallas, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Washington and Austin, Texas; Nov. 12 in Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Minneapolis, Monterey, Calif., New Haven, Conn., and Santa Cruz, Calif.; Nov. 19 in Denver, Detroit, Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz.; Nov. 24 in Little Rock, Ark.; Dec. 3 in Syracuse, N.Y.; and Dec. 10 in Asheville, N.C., with other cities to follow. 

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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