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August 31, 2010

A friend of mine, to whom I’d not spoken for some time, asked me yesterday if I’d seen any good movies recently. This was 48 hours after Film 4’s FrightFest, where I’d seen some utter dreck, but where I’d also managed to catch the sublime Monsters. As I told her the premise, I could see her eyes glazing over. “It doesn’t sound like anything I’d fancy,” she said. And I could see her point.

“Six years ago,” runs the press blurb, “a NASA probe returning to Earth with samples of alien organisms, crashed over Central America. Soon after, new life forms began to appear there and half of Mexico was quarantined. Today the American and Mexican military struggle to contain the giant creatures.”

You’re thinking District 9, right? Or something along those lines, but that ball park. And if you have no science fiction or horror leanings at all, then I bet, just like my friend, you’re reaching for the Off switch around about the start of the second sentence? I can’t say I blame you; the movie described there is not the movie I saw on Saturday night. But, shit, you have to get the punters through the door somehow, and Monsters is such an unusual little film (little in budget only, in scale and ambition it’s genuinely epic) that it may struggle – in fact, no, it will – to find any kind of audience at all.

Aptly, it stars two people who impressed in separate movies that are as far apart as one might get, other than that their budgets were both pretty modest. Scoot McNairy, who mooched around with a decent dollop of Indie cool in the Woody Allen-esque In Search of a Midnight Kiss, and Whitney Able, the High School bitch so memorably chased across a field by a car in All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, coming together here with a perfect chemistry that might otherwise defy such cross-genre melding.

This is, you see, a love story. And a road movie. And there’s some social commentary thrown in. And a little – a very little – bit of politics. So you can see how difficult it may find hunting out an audience. What with the aliens as well.

I’m being glib. Monsters is predominately a love story. It follows Andrew Kaulder (McNairy), a feckless and frustrated photojournalist working out of Guadalajara, who is charged with escorting his newspaper’s owner’s daughter, Sam (Able), through the infected zone and back into the US. When the official and security-monitored transport links break down, the couple are soon relying on dodgy connections, corrupt officials, and ultimately their own instincts to survive. For the most part, for the vast vast majority of the time, this is an attritional challenge fed to us purely through third party references, through anecdotal evidence, through the TV, through threats perceived rather than encountered. Noises off are heard, but the creatures are hardly ever seen. For many, I fear this will mean the movie falls betwixt and between all the bases it is trying to cover, but for me it was almost perfect. The hints and threats as the two protagonists limped towards their final goal added to what we felt about the characters, not how good we thought the CGI might be.

It is a languid and beautiful film, set out with a scope and sense of awe that so much popular cinema simply no longer bothers with. That it takes the time to do this, and do it all so well, means that when the climax comes it is all the more affecting for having involved you so personally. A satisfying and quietly impressive movie, director Gareth Edwards has debuted with some style, I just hope that somebody takes notice.

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