When it comes to horror films, there are a few central complaints that everyone makes about why many of them turn out so lackluster. But one of the big – and most prevalent – reasons is that there isn’t enough emphasis on plot and compelling characters. And if you find that’s normally your beef with the increasingly large number of dreadful duds, then perhaps MONSTERS is the film you’ve been searching for. That is, if you don’t mind it really not being a horror film.
What it is, however, is a fairly thought-provoking tale about the human condition and an entertaining romantic drama road movie that just happens to have a sci-fi horror setting. Several years after a probe crash lands in a Mexican region, it becomes infested with giant monsters and is dubbed an “infected zone.” The creatures are Lovecraftian – read: tentacled – and quite large, leaving a path of devastation wherever they go. Oh, and they also discharge hazardous fumes that are deadly to humans, which causes pretty much everyone living in, or around, the infected zones to wear gas masks. The presentation of the creatures is what proves the most ambitious and noteworthy about them: director Gareth Edwards has a background in digital effects so he created and animated the CGI creatures by himself. He also chose to show them as little as possible, only giving them about 20 minutes total of screen time – and that might even be overestimating it a bit. What he does with this tactic is give the creatures an almost omnipresent sense of dread by merely showing the destruction and human anguish left in their wake.
Enter photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy), who is traveling through central Mexico, chronicling the monsters descent on our planet and society’s reaction to it. Moments into the film, he gets a call from his boss, who orders him to escort his lovely daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), back to America safely. After their passports are stolen and they can’t take the ferry back home, the two hire a tour guide and travel the dangerous path directly through the monsters’ stomping grounds.
The growing relationship between our two main characters through their treacherous journey home is the real meat of the flick, which gives McNairy and Able plenty of time to shine in their roles. They’re practically the only characters in the film – everyone else might as well have “cannon fodder” written across their forehead – and as it goes on, their relationship progresses very organically. It’s really the subtler touches and small bits of dialogue that make their journey refreshingly realistic; in fact, it’s really the desolation of the humans they see along the way that makes their attraction to each other much more, dare I say, touching.
There’s too much ambition and heart in MONSTERS to have a meandering middle stretch completely discredit it. Not only does it create a very realistic post-apocalyptic world on an extremely modest budget, it also says a lot about the world we live in and the kindness people exude after a disaster occurs. It might not feature the Kaiju Big Battel backdrop that most might hope for, but it is an exceptional film in its own right, even if that doesn’t include being a grade-A horror film.