SXSW Review: Monsters



Writer/director Gareth Edwards makes his feature film debut with Monsters, which premiered at a sold-out midnight screening at SXSW Presents: Fantastic Fest at Midnight. The English filmmaker and his cast and crew traveled in a van for several months throughout Central America to create a tale that is more of a road movie than simply another alien invasion. Through a combination of CGI effects created on his own laptop and natural settings, Edwards establishes a plausible reality.

Monsters is based on a simple premise: Six years ago, NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A probe was launched to collect samples, but crashed upon re-entry over Central America. New life forms began to appear there and half of Mexico was quarantined as an infected zone. The American and Mexican military still struggle to contain "the creatures."

The story begins as an American photographer Andrew (Scott McNairy) reluctantly agrees to escort the boss' daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) to safety. What begins as a one-day errand to get Sam onto the last ferry to the United States becomes a dangerous journey after most of their money along with their passports are stolen. The pair must make their way instead through the infected zone in Mexico to the safety of the U.S. border. Jets zoom overhead as the military bombs the Zone, which is bordered by enormous fences and floodlights. Andrew and Sam are accompanied along the way by armed escorts, ever wary of the threat of the alien creatures that are active at night. The experience brings Andrew and Sam together as they journey through rough and dangerous terrain.

From the opening scene, viewers are hooked into the reality of Monsters, courtesy of the confrontations between the military and the giant walking tentacled aliens. However, even as the film moves through the destruction wrought by the aliens, it relies more on the human element than science fiction concept. The two main characters are far from perfect and a bit self-absorbed for the first act -- Andrew's looking for the big break photo, Sam seems to be avoiding her fiance -- but viewers eventually began to care for the characters. It's really Sam who is more acclimatized to the local culture and fluent in Spanish, which helps the pair in sticky situations.

A refreshing aspect of Monsters is the atypical portrayal of the Mexican locals in supporting roles. The Mexican guides are more knowledgeable than the U.S. military about the creatures' lifecycles and habits. Everyone is just trying to survive with the nightly fear of the creatures. Even the ferry manager who charges $5000 for a ferry ticket is believable -- after personally being subjected to price gouging in Central America after a hurricane cut off travel routes, I've experienced the frustration and sense of helplessness.

With the exception of the lead actors, the cast are all "real people" whom the production crew encountered along the way. This style of filmmaking, along with a lot of improvisation, lends a sense of cinema verite to the story at times. The tension and suspense builds as the story progresses -- will they make it together to safety? Edwards draws out decent performances from all his actors, both professional and amateur, which is quite a feat considering the low budget and rough conditions of the shoot.

The extensive use of CGI effects is not as evident as could be expected and is quite effective in allowing a suspense of disbelief almost immediately. The effects blend in so well, which is amazing considering Edwards put all of the CGI during post-production. In addition to filming on location in Central America and Mexico, Edwards also shot part of the film in post-Ike Galveston, Texas and along the Bolivar Peninsula.

Monsters isn't a typical sci-fi monster film, with things blowing up and lots of battles -- it's the journey and developing relationship of the lead characters that create a balanced and well-rounded film.

Special note: Within a few hours of the screening, Monsters was picked up by Magnet Releasing, the genre branch of Magnolia Pictures. This is one of the first if not the first distribution deal made for a SXSW film during the actual festival.

Austin connection: Actor Scoot McNairy grew up in Richardson, Texas and moved to Austin in time to star in Wrong Numbers in 2001, which won the Audience Award for Best Showcase Feature Film at Austin Film Festival.

Monsters plays SXSW one more time -- tonight (Thursday 3/18) at 11:59 pm at Alamo Lamar -- but also screens as part of the "Taste of SXSW" open to the public, on Sunday 3/21 at 9:35 pm at Alamo Ritz.