Monsters is a new science-fiction film that straddles the divide between several genres: the Japanese kaij? eiga (giant monster) genre that started with Godzilla in 1954, preceded in the West by King Kong (1933); alien invasion movies that lead to the devastation of parts of the globe; travelogue films featuring photo-journalists; and it has a touch of romance to boot. The fact that Monsters weaves all these strands together in a comprehensive and complementary way is an achievement in itself. The fact that director Gareth Edwards accomplished that while location-scouting on the hoof in a country he was unfamiliar with, working with a cast of untrained actors, who improvised many of their lines, and designing terrific special effects, makes this one of the most assured and impressive feature debuts in recent years.
When asked about the movie, Edwards talks about creating a world where the advent of a creature like Godzilla is treated like a 9/11 event, one that has changed the world, initially in a shocking way, then has become background noise as the West gets on with its life, with occasional sound-bites on the news to remind middle-class viewers that the war against terror is still going on. Creating a monster movie with links to contemporary society isn’t a new idea: at a stretch King Kong can be seen as the start of Western guilt over imperialism, while Godzilla certainly reflects 1950s concerns about the advent of the nuclear age and so on. In recent years, monster/alien invasion movies have seen a renaissance, heralded by the camcorder cinéma vérité of Cloverfield (2008), which recalls the modernity of capturing terrorist events on camera phone and the reportage of the Gulf Wars on low-light adaptive TV cameras - the unreal/virtual quality of TV reporting leading Jean Baudrillard to describe it as the ‘Gulf War that did not take place’ - and mixed the giant lizards of Godzilla, Gorgo (1961), Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) et al. with the spectacle of modern disaster movies. District 9 (2009) took that attempt to make an alien invasion seem ‘real’ one stage further, by presenting half of the movie as a documentary about events that have already taken place, though it returned to traditional narrative filmmaking for its final act.
With a miniature budget, Edwards can’t compete with Cloverfield or District 9, and indeed both films cast a large shadow that draws inevitable comparisons. So rather than going for the spectacle and high drama of his predecessors, the director uses the backdrop of a quarantined Mexico, still partially infested with aliens, as the setting for a slightly old-fashioned drama that recalls the films of Frank Capra as a gentle romance unfolds between a mismatched and slightly antagonistic couple. It also draws on the familiar post-20th-century tale of an indentured photo-journalist reporting from a war zone and the improvised, semi-illegal filming of Michael Winterbottom’s In this World (2002), where refugees from a war zone play fictionalised versions of themselves, in footage that sneaks under the radar of the authorities. By asking real people who live in Mexico real questions about their lives (replacing the off-camera questions about real life with inserted fake questions about aliens) the director constructs a semi-truth that blurs fact and fiction on screen and would probably delight Baudrillard in its confident creation of a world that is both real, familiar and evocative of current concerns about the ‘war on terror’/immigration and also virtual and obviously fake.
Gareth Edwards started as a special effects designer and the effects in this movie range from the outré - 40-foot bio-luminescent squid floating above the streets of a Texan border town - to the completely invisible - the superimposition of posters warning about the quarantine and invasion on walls in real locations - the latter so realistic that it comes as a shock to find out they were computer-generated, as the viewer doesn’t even expect this aspect of the filmmaking to be CGI. The most impressive example of these kinds of effects previously came in The Truman Show (1998) where again some elements of the film are obviously CGI - a zoom onto the surface of ‘the moon’ to reveal a TV studio behind - and others are invisible and unexpected - in this case, the addition of extra storeys to the squat buildings of the town where the film was shot. Like Peter Weir, Edwards mixes satire, media commentary, excellent direction and sympathetic performances to create a science-fiction film that sums up the decade prior to its release in memorable microcosm.
Monsters isn’t a perfect film, the plot, like the characters, meanders a little and the final scene where the two protagonists are menaced up close by a giant alien squid in an abandoned gas station seems a little conventional and forced (although the final shot of that scene is transcendent) compared to what’s gone before. However, Monsters is the finest and most thought-provoking alien invasion movie since the excellent District 9, and it uses its small budget in absolutely exemplary fashion, easily outshining movies costing five times its amount, such as the similar but creatively bankrupt and risible Skyline, also released this year. With a circular plot that makes viewers want to watch the film again, not only for the possible conclusion to the narrative they might have missed the first time round, but also to absorb more of the excellent background details, this film shows the emergence of a major new British talent and its December release date lets it just slip into lists of 2010’s best films.