Sunday, February 20, 2011
Like District 9, Gareth Edwards’ Monsters is a monster movie that takes place several years after aliens have landed on Earth. District 9 had a budget of $30 million; Monsters cost a fraction of that ($500,000), but you wouldn’t know by looking at it. The movie is a masterpiece of economy filmmaking and a prime example of just how much a resourceful independent filmmaker can accomplish these days.
The movie takes place in a speculative near-future, when the entire northern part of Mexico has been quarantined and the U.S.-Mexico border has been sealed with a fortified wall to keep out extraterrestrial “creatures”. A war photographer (Scoot McNairy) is paid a hefty sum to escort a wealthy American expatriate (Whitney Able) from Central America back to the States. To complete the journey, they must travel through the Infected Zone, where alien behemoths that look like elephants crossed with squids roam freely.
Like Robert Rodriguez, Edwards is a multi-hyphenate filmmaker. Traveling with his two lead actors and a 5-man crew, he shot the movie himself in Costa Rica, Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. He filmed in flooded areas and disasters zones, including a neighborhood in Galveston, Texas, that had been destroyed by Hurricane Ike. Like the great documentarians, Edwards knows how to make the most of his surroundings. The landscape looks like it’s been ravaged by alien invaders, but no, the filmmakers simply shot on location in areas that suited their purposes.
Even more astonishing is what Edwards achieved during post-production. Using readily available computer programs like Photoshop and Adobe After Effects, he painted in helicopters, road signs, mountains and a towering border fence. In an amazing nighttime scene, a sea creature pulls a downed plane beneath the surface; the effects in that scene were accomplished in the director’s bathtub using a toy plane and a Mag-Lite. The design of the creatures is jaw-dropping. Whereas Steven Spielberg delayed showing the monster in Jaws because he thought the shark looked fake, Edwards shows the creatures right away, in a stunning roadside attack that opens the film. Monsters shows how far visuals effects technology has advanced in the 35 years since Spielberg’s creature-feature blockbuster.
Able and McNairy have good chemistry (they’re married in real life), but the real star is Edwards. No wonder why he’s been hired to direct the new big-budget reboot of Godzilla. His low-budget indie can be viewed as a straight monster movie or as an allegory for immigration and the devastating effects of natural disasters in the Third World’s most vulnerable areas. It’s no big surprise that the “monsters” to which the title refers turn out to be entirely human.