Don’t let the generic title of Monsters fool you — it’s really a pretty unique film. With an estimated budget of $800,000, which is the latte and donuts budget for most Hollywood movies, Monsters offers some surprisingly big-time special effects. But the real story behind the film’s creation is its super-cheap on-location guerilla shooting style, in which the film’s crew (one writer/director, two cameramen and two actors) would show up unannounced, film their scene in front of whatever happened to be going on and then skedaddle. The result was a highly realistic low-budget sci-fi flick that manages to do more right than wrong.

The plot is simple enough: A NASA probe that collected alien life samples has crashed into northern Mexico, which is now “the infected zone,” a playground for War of the Worlds -type aliens. Photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) has just arrived in Central America on assignment when his mission changes. Instead of photographing the aliens’ northward migration, he now must find the injured Samantha (Whitney Able), the daughter of an all-powerful Rupert Murdoch-type, and get her out of Mexico and back to the safety of the United States.

Monsters is heavily derivative, no doubt about it. The occasional handheld camera shot feels like Cloverfield . The aliens-living-among-us theme recalls District 9. The setting is occasionally reminiscent of Predator or even Jurassic Park . But unlike these movies, in which the special effects take center stage, writer/director Gareth Edwards instead focuses on the budding relationship between his two main characters. This is likely out of necessity, as giant, glowing squid-like aliens and small arms fire is expensive, but improvised dialog is cheap.

Lead actors McNairy and Able are probably given too much free rein in creating their dialog and developing their characters, as these areas (along with some under-realized themes) eventually begin to stand out as the film’s weaknesses. But given the unusual circumstances surrounding the filming of Monsters , as well as the legions of non-actors who they interact with on-screen (only two actors appear in the film’s IMDB.com credits), they do a sufficiently good job. Cool music and just-right special effects help smooth over these wrinkles.

In short, there’s nothing cheap- looking about Monsters , which re-sets the bar in an expanding field of DIY indie films doing increasingly more with less. Viewed in this light, Monsters is an amazing accomplishment and a worthy rental.

Grade – B


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