Cambridge Film Festival Review: Monsters
The Pitch: Districto Nueve: Una Historia de Amor.
The Review: Since it came out last year and nabbed a Best Picture nomination, one of the commonest descriptions being attached to upcoming movies is that it will be ‘this year’s District 9’. Low budget but high on street cred and turning a good profit, the Neill Blomkamp sci-fi action thriller seemingly sets a good template for variations on the ‘War of the Worlds’-style alien invasion movie. So it’s my great relief to be able to tell you that the only similarities that Monsters has with it’s South African cousin are unknown actors and alien visitors in a realistic setting. If that sounds, in fact, very similar, let me reassure you that Monsters is a very different beast.
There’s a more traditional separation between man and alien here, the giant creatures kept at bay in an isolation zone, but it’s the fate of two humans that concerns us most. Whitney Able is the daughter of a publisher stuck on the wrong side of the Mexican border, and Scoot McNairy is the put-upon photographer tasked with getting her home safe. When things start to go wrong, he starts to take that mission personally, and becomes determined to get her home safely. Unlike District 9, there is a significant difference in scale between us and them, so the interactions and encounters are less frequent, but are no less effective for that.
It’s difficult to pigeonhole Monsters even as a particular genre. To call it a road movie feels a disservice, while the sense of the epic trek that our pair must undertake cannot capture the full nature of what’s within the narrative. There’s an air of creeping dread and the situation is expertly used to push the two leads together. But while there are some tense scenes, and a palpable sense of peril at times, there are also moments of real beauty and the characters and their back stories come over as wholly authentic. In particular, the final third of the movie manages to combine the nervousness and thrills to most satisfying effect, and the whole movie has a feeling of reality and believability, both in its settings and in its characterisations.
Then you discover how things were done – Able and McNairy are the only two actual actors, the rest being made up of locals as the small crew went on their own road trip across three countries. Edwards had an outline, but allowed his actors the freedom to improvise based on some brief guidance. Then the effects, which are never less than impeccable and put a lot of this summer’s blockbusters to shame, were all done by Edwards using off-the-shelf kit that you could buy yourself for the price of a small car. The first time director has heard this described as both a monster movie for girls and a love story for boys, and seems comfortable with both descriptions. There is no denying that anyone not put off by the concept or the marketing stands a good chance of falling into a demographic that will get something special from this; not only an absorbing and epic journey for our protagonists, but also one of the most technically accomplished debuts in living memory. The thought of what Edwards could do with a big budget is inspiring, but if he can do this much with so little, just maybe he doesn’t need it?
Why see it at the cinema: The stunning landscapes, impeccable VFX work and even the intimate moments between the leads make this an essential cinema experience.
The Score: 9/10