Dir. Gareth Edwards
(2010, R, 93 min)
★ ★ ★ ½

Monsters is a science-fiction thriller that’s light on science-fiction thrills, but in this case that’s not a criticism. I wrote a couple of years ago regarding the BBC miniseries Torchwood: Children of Earth that sometimes special effects are the enemy of imagination. With a lot of Hollywood money at stake, oftentimes directors and digital artists are limited to explosions and pyrotechnics that will appeal to the broadest possible audience. But with fewer resources, you might have to actually think of something for your movie to be about, and then as a bonus have the freedom to make it.

Produced for less than half a million dollars, Monsters isn’t about much, per se. It follows Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), an American photojournalist hired to escort his boss’s daughter, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), back to the United States from Mexico. The aliens have landed – sort of. After a NASA deep-space probe crashes south of the border, extraterrestrial lifeforms begin to grow and spread throughout Northern Mexico in a now-quarantined infected zone ending at the border, where the United States has erected a giant wall to keep the aliens out.

Director Gareth Edwards

That sounds like an obvious immigration allegory, but I’m not so sure. The director, Gareth Edwards, was interviewed on The Guardian‘s Film Weekly podcast and claimed that any political content was coincidental. The film can’t help but observe the challenges of trekking to the border as well as America’s attempt to insulate itself at the expense of outsiders, but the main thrust of the story is its two main characters, who they are, what they’re returning to, and what they experience along the way. They have emotional backstories that are explored without feeling forced.

In addition to directing, Edwards also did the writing, cinematography, production design, and visual effects, which perhaps explains the film’s modest budget – he didn’t have to pay anyone else to make it. His multi-hyphenate effort makes Monsters even more impressive, because it looks and sounds more polished than its do-it-yourself production would indicate. Late in the film there’s a shot revealing the creatures that is a better use of effects than most anything in a Roland Emmerich movie. The creatures themselves aren’t exactly scary (imagine an octopus crossed with an insect), but the main characters express wonder that’s rare in effects-driven movies where people mostly scream and run away from things.

This is the second low-budget film I’ve seen starring Scoot McNairy, after the equally impressive In Search of a Midnight Kiss where he played a sad-sack looking for companionship on New Year’s Eve. He’s handsome in an offbeat way, an everyman with leading man quality, somewhere between Michael Cera and Shia LaBeouf on the nerd-hero spectrum but with more dramatic range than either, and I can think of many Hollywood vehicles that would be more interesting with him in them. A quick glance at his IMDb profile shows a lot of projects in the pipeline; keep an eye on him.