Last summer, District 9 proved to be a science-fiction film palatable for audiences outside the nerd domain. Like Cloverfield, it employed political allegory and that Blair Witch‑y hand-held camera effect that can make the fantastical seem relatable and turn run-of-the-mill sci-fi films into classics.
At first glance it seems that Monsters, written and directed by newcomer Gareth Edwards, aspires to be in the vein of those films, but it becomes apparent the movie's low equipment budget (a staggeringly small $15,000) hasn't provided the resources to wow the way a sci-fi film is expected to; instead, the movie does a weak imitation of Lost in Translation, only with giant octopuses wandering around. Even with a few thrilling moments, the film falls short in both its political and romantic storytelling.
Monsters imagines that a space probe containing alien samples crashed over Central America in 2006, and its contents have caused half of Mexico to be quarantined as an "infected zone." Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is a photojournalist who is entrusted with sending tourist Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) safely home after she is injured in Mexico, and inevitably they must pass through the infected zone to do so. The low budget would be impressive if it weren't so glaringly obvious throughout the film. Simply put, a movie called Monsters should not skimp on the monsters—especially when the two leads are not nearly engaging enough to make up for the lack of action.
To Edwards' credit, the monsters are pretty cool: They're half octopus, half woolly mammoth; their floating, glow-in-the-dark tentacles make them both mesmerizing and menacing. If only we got to see them more. In their place is a hollow story of two strangers in a strange place, as told with minimal dialogue and a lot of thoughtful-sounding music. The camera is kind to Able, but her grating voice and lack of chemistry with McNairy will keep you impatiently waiting for the next monster to appear. Even when the danger of these creatures seems near, the film's slow, meditative tone doesn't jibe with the threat of a monster attack enough to maintain drama. And by the time our two adventurers near the American border and one muses, "It's different looking at America from the outside in," you want to slap your forehead for the lame, last-minute attempt at a political statement.
In a filmmaking era when a camera costs more than all the equipment on this film, Edwards should be given his due—his abilities as a director are inarguable. As a writer, he could use some help, and though this movie falls into the forgettable category, perhaps his next movie will allow him a budget worthy of his talents.
opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.