Every couple of years, someone gets headlines for making a movie for some absurdly small amount of money, a trend which started when Roberto Rodriguez allegedly brought in El Mariachi for under $7,000 twenty years ago. Gareth Edwards reportedly brought in Monsters for around 800,000 dollars, and the amazing thing is that it doesn't really show. I've seen a hell of a lot more money spent to vastly less effect.
On the one hand, if you're crazy determined and have the right skills, these days you can use a laptop to create effects which used to need whole server farms to render. So Edwards was able to matte in scenes of massive destruction and the odd vast alien on a laptop in his bedroom, thus compacting into one man what usually takes about five minutes to credit in tiny print at the end of the average modern blockbuster. And on the other hand, if you don't hire any actors and work with a total crew, stars included, that will fit in a mini-bus, your filming costs are pretty low as well. Monsters has only two credited acting performances and everything was shot guerrilla style with high end digital video cameras. Most of the other performances were reportedly improvised by asking whatever locals were in shot to join in while the two professional actors improvised from a three by five card. From all of this, I conclude that Gareth Edwards could give Derren Brown a run for his money in sheer talent for manipulating total strangers, and that he's totally wasted as a guerrilla director; he ought to be running a medium sized country.
What's impressive is how well all this half-assing pays off, assuming it all really was half-assing. The movie opens with marines running around with machine guns and jeeps, and there are a whole bunch of guys with guns in the middle of the movie; if either of those scenes involved Edwards sweet-talking heavily armed guys into helping out for a few minutes rather than using ringers, someone in the UN should be phoning him right now to sort out a few of those pesky armed confrontations I'm always seeing on the sandbox news.
Necessarily, the whole thing is loose and unplotted; most of the movie is just the two main characters drifting through a series of encounters in a ruined Mexico (although few of the "Mexican" scenes were shot in Mexico) as they try to make their way to the US border. Mexico and a big chunk of the southern US have been sealed off as a quarantine zone after space aliens crash landed in Mexico and started trashing everything in sight. The landscape is full of ruins and rubbled military hardware, all of it CGI'd in well enough that nothing looks jarringly photoshopped into place. The threat of alien attack hovers over the whole landscape, but the aliens are seen only at night, in glimpses as they roll in for some more trashing and everyone else runs away and squints out at the carnage from behind something heavy.
It works because it feels right. We're watching a couple of pretty clueless people trying to get clear of something they don't understand and can't really fight against. They drift, and bicker and try to figure out whether the locals can be trusted, and struggle to convince themselves that they'll be OK because they haven't seen any actual aliens yet. This isn't an exciting movie, but I've rarely seen anything that hung together so well on its own basic premise. A lot of the people who watch movies with space aliens are going to find it very boring, because there isn't a huge amount going on most of the time. But there are other, messier, more compromised and frankly rather crappy movies if that's what you want. What makes Monsters rather special is that it's entirely true to itself. Most movies leave you thinking that the writing was OK, but the direction didn't drive it along, or that the performances were good, but the writing didn't give the actors enough to work with; there's always a weak link which leaves you thinking that a better job could have been made of the movie. Monsters is exactly what it set out to be. The acting fits the script and the tone of the movie perfectly. The effects blend in and support the atmosphere of the movie rather than overwhelming it. Even if it's not great art, it's consummate craftsmanship, and in its own modest way, an almost ludicrous vindication of my endless whining on about how the less money you spend on a movie, the better it gets.
When you wind up watching this on DVD, play close attention to the beginning, or like me, you will wind up having to go back and watch it again after the movie ends. Not that it will actually clear up anything, but by that point you'll be so desperate to figure out what comes next that it will still seem worth a shot. Thinking about what comes next, I checked out just what this calling card netted Edwards, and he's directing yet another remake of Godzilla. This is either going to be a terrible waste of a very particular talent or the next King Kong.