Monsters nudges us into our future, in which the latest "Wonder of the World" is a massive border wall between America and Mexico. To escape from alien monsters, two Americans will have to make a perilous crossing home. The social critique and monster-movie theatrics unavoidably place Monsters in contention with District 9, the overrated monster movie that scored a Best Picture nomination at the last Oscars. Like District 9, Monsters is a "calling card" movie from a first-time feature director, in this case British filmmaker Gareth Edwards. But Monsters turns out to be the better film, not working itself into a lather in trying to impress, but dealing rather quietly with human-level drama that just happens to take place in the shadow of giant beasts.
The 2015 of Monsters proposes a world in which the crash of an alien space-probe six years prior has unleashed a worrying "biohazard": giant amphibious creatures crawling around the border in what's been dubbed the "Infected Zone." American photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) finds himself in the unenviable position of an "offer" he can't refuse: Andrew must collect and deliver the boss' wayward daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) safely home. When they miss safe passage by ferry, the two must take a risky path through the infected zone.
Mostly, Monsters is a small-scale indie romance. Though Samantha has a fiancé waiting for her, Andrew takes a shine to her and attempts to break down her emotional unavailability. As always, mutual survival draws people together, and though Andrew isn't terribly refined, Samantha has her doubts about the life to which she's returning. In part, Monsters intends commentary on the collateral damage of militaristic imperialism, immigration-themed xenophobia, and exploitative media. Then there are the science-fiction monster-movie archetypes, which Edwards happily upends.
Monsters fits into the later-day-Godzilla tradition of The Host and Cloverfield, with beasties created by computer (in fact, Edwards did the effects work himself). The creatures emit a rattling and clicking reminiscent of the tripods from George Pal's War of the Worlds, though Edwards' aliens are massive in scale, as well as metaphorical. Appealingly, Monsters zigs where other monster movies zag: the creatures are mostly kept in reserve, and when they do get their money shot, it's a breathtakingly lyrical moment, encouraging thoughtful reflection rather than the now-clichéd awe of roaring creatures and exploding artillery.
Monsters falls down a bit for the same reason it's distinctive: its shaggy understatement. The political commentary could use some sharpening, and the partly improvised dialogue tends to be shapeless or obvious. McNairy and Able prove convincing in their lack of affectation, which helps, and the low-budget resourcefulness impresses. All in all, it's a trip worth taking, with Edwards successfully selling himself as a filmmaker worthy of another shot.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]