There are few things more rewarding than watching a low-budget film succeed. It’s usually a chance to revel in creative, ingenious filmmaking and/or smart screenwriting, and a cathartic experience for those who have grown weary of hundred million dollar Michael Bay explosion festivals. They’re a pleasant breath of fresh air, and because they refresh us, we laud praise upon them.
But sometimes people get too eager for a ‘little movie that could’ story, and begin to heap praise on a movie that isn’t entirely deserving of it. Then the hype wheel gets rolling, and a movie arrives fresh from the festival circuit and prepackaged with critical accolades, only to end up a complete let down to those stuck in the audience. Which brings us to Gareth Edwards’ new film Monsters, which has the unfortunate distinction of being a little movie that can’t.
Its aim and its premise are promising. Working with an estimated budget of around $500,000, Monsters begins six years after extraterrestrial life sets down on Earth in the form of giant, tentacled creatures. These creatures have been generally regulated to a large “infected zone” between Mexico and the United States, making travel between the two countries extremely difficult. Working against this backdrop, Monsters follows a disenchanted photographer who reluctantly accepts the task of escorting his employer’s daughter back from Mexico to the US. Their trip inevitably takes them through the dreaded infected zone, and the two find themselves bonding as they make their dangerous voyage home.
This is not a bad story to begin with, and initially, the film shows immense potential. The early action sequences show brief glimpses or obscured views of the creatures, always teasing us and leaving us wanting more. This works in creating initial tension and suspense, but withholding a true monster attack for as long as Edwards does works only on a conditional level; eventually, there must be some kind of payoff to make the wait worth it.
Unfortunately, Monsters lacks that explosive power. There is no one moment where the movie really reaches out and grabs you, no moment that makes you fall for it and believe in it. It’s hard to make a 94 minute movie feel long, but this one does because for the bulk of it we’re left waiting and waiting for an encounter. When we finally do get one, the attack itself is underwhelming, and the movie loses any steam it had left.
There are bigger problems though, which I think boil down to two factors:
The first is the film’s budget. At some point in a giant monster movie you have to show the monster, and when Edwards finally reveals his they don’t look very believable. It’s admirable that he tried to do so much with so little, but this is a movie that desperately needs more money invested in its special effects, not necessarily to create more action sequences, but at least to make the ones it already features remotely believable on a visual level.
Even worse than the budgetary issues though is the fact that Edwards’ doesn’t know what kind of film he wants Monsters to be. It takes wild swings at being everything from a monster movie, a post-apocalyptic drama, a commentary on illegal immigration, and finally to a quiet kind of love story, but doesn’t really connect on any of these punches.
The romantic angle is the most frustrating, because you can tell this is the aspect that Edwards has the most invested it. The issue here is that these characters haven’t really spent any time with each other, so it’s hard to believe that they’d develop these kinds of feelings for one another. It’s possible that Edwards believes their relationship would develop because of the traumatic experience they’ve shared during their journey, but since the trip as we’ve seen it is so docile (except for one scene), it’s hard to believe this would’ve brought them together on that deep of a level.
In a way, it’s hard not to root for a movie like Monsters. But the execution and delivery just simply aren’t there to make this film memorable or even interesting. Some will argue that the films faults are due to its modest budget, and to an extent that is true, but ultimately there are some fundamental issues with the screenwriting and pacing that go a lot further than budgetary issues. Ultimately, it’s an admirable effort, but not at all a memorable one.
Admirable in its ambition but lacking in execution, Monsters is probably one to skip: C-
Monsters is now playing in select theaters, and is also available through OnDemand, iTunes, and Amazon.com.