You will like it for what it is. That is usually a cop out line, used by critics who are in the process of defending a movie that isn’t very good. The term “for what it is” implies special parameters, telling the audience that if they don’t like a movie, it’s because those parameters aren’t being applied. If applied correctly, seeing any movie “for what it is” makes every movie good. And we know that’s just not true. However, there is a rare occasion when it’s okay to say that a movie is interesting for what it is. This only occurs when the understanding of what the movie “is” enhances the appreciation of the film. Take Garreth Edwards’ Monsters. On the surface, it’s a good movie. But when we pull back a few layers and see what went into this film, it’s both good and very interesting. Interesting, for what it is.
The story is this. Several years ago, NASA found the existence of life within our solar system. But when they tried to bring some of it back to Earth, the probe carrying it crashed in between the United States and Mexico. The result was the rise of a dangerous race of aliens, and the subsequent creation of a massive quarantine zone. After a quick scene in which we’re introduced to one of the giant squid-like monsters through the lens of a military nightvision camera (an impressive opening scene that calls to some of the found-footage thrillers that have become so popular in recent years), we meet a photojournalist named Andrew Kaulder, played by Scoot McNairy. He is in South America, searching a hospital in an area that has been ravaged by war against the aliens for the daughter of his publisher. When he finds Samantha (Whitney Able), she’s got an arm in a sling and her attitude cranked to eleven. She doesn’t exactly want to go home, but she knows that she has no other choice. She must go with Kaulder and try to get back to the United States, where her life and fiancee await.
Thus begins this road-trip story through a ravaged country side and eventually — after things begin to go wrong — through the quarantined zone itself. Shot guerrilla style (read: three people walk into the jungle with a camera) and on the run, Edwards’ movie takes us on a long journey through war-torn Mexico, into the infected jungle and on to a mammoth wall that separates the United States from Mexico.
His great accomplishment is two-fold. One, as his own cinematographer, he captures some gorgeous imagery. Not just the images of the very cool aliens he’s created, but also simple, expertly-framed shots of a countryside destroyed. Second, with his two talented lead actors, he creates a relationship story that cuts through all of the sci-fi elements and tense scares. Together, McNairy and Able have great chemistry. The evolution of their relationship — from neither wanting to be together to needed each other to survive — feels very authentic and lends weight to the overall story. McNairy is charismatic, Able demure, and it works perfectly inside this universe created by Edwards.
With Monsters, Edwards proves that he is another example of the evolution of the indie filmmaker. This new breed of filmmaker who shoots rogue, runs a lean production, performs duties beyond director (and writer). They are often writer, director, cinematographer, and special effects wizard. They are accomplishing things on their MacBook Pro that used to take a room full of specialized workers and equipment. It seems to stem from the likes of Rian Johnson, who created Brick on his home computer. Or The Spierig Brothers, who did the CG effects for Daybreakers by reading the manual and doing it themselves. It is the creation of independent films that look like they had a dozen teams from a studio behind them. With Monsters, Edwards is director, DP, set decorator, and creator of all the alien creatures you see in the film. The only thing he didn’t do on his own was edit, a task that was expertly accomplished by Colin Goudie, who began editing the project while traveling with Edwards and cast in Central America. It’s no small task — and the end result makes him look like a filmmaker who can move mountains with his mind.
To its ultimate credit, Monsters is a little sci-fi movie with big monsters that understands first that you must have interesting characters. And those characters must fit inside of an interesting narrative. And that narrative must be supported by interesting visuals. Edwards accomplishes all of this, on his first try. Considering he did it on a shoe-string, hoping in the back of trucks to go from location-to-location, and did it with completely improvised dialogue and, save for the two leads, a group of non-actors, it makes it all that much more impressive. You know, for what it is.
More from SXSW 2010