Monsters is the lowest budget big budget monster movie of all time. Sorta, because that sentence makes no sense, but it kind of does. See Monsters was made on a budget of around $500,000 which is pretty damn minuscule but it’s setting, plot and effects are very much of the big budget movie variety. It’s also one of the most impressive feats in independent film making ever made. What makes this such an impressive film? Click the link to find out.
Monsters was almost entirely filmed and produced with a tiny team of just 2 actors (Scoot McNairy & Whitney Able) and the director (Gareth Edwards) and a few crew members for transportation and sound roles. For a film that is about two people trying to avoid being squished by giant monsters from outer space that’s a pretty incredible feat. The plot goes thusly, Andrew Kaulder (Scoot) is asked by his boss to transport his daughter Samantha Wyndon (Whitney) out of Mexico back to the US. Not a massively difficult task you’d imagine except for one problem. See Mexico is kind of the landing zone of a US mistake. 6 years prior to the start of the film NASA discovered potential alien life in our solar system and sent a probe to retrieve samples. Said probe crashed in Mexico on re-entry just south of the US border and the contents of the probe were unleashed into the local area. These alien organisms infected the area and grew into 100ft tall giant squid like creatures and it’s currently their migration season. A bit of the problem if you happen to be near the Mexican border.
When an attempt to gain passage on an extortionately priced ferry goes awry Andrew and Samantha are force to make the journey along Mexico’s infected zone, a stretch of land that the creatures live in. They pay an even more extortionate fee for a set of guide to take them through safely and as expected all doesn’t go entirely to plan.
Though this film has a Sci-Fi action premise it certainly is not that. Monsters is essentially about a pair of people who have lives back home in America that they would rather not be in. For Samantha she is engaged to a man she appears to be having doubts about. For Andrew he has a child which he is barely allowed to be a father to. Their journey across Mexico is more about the pair of them becoming friends and beginning to fall for each other. At situation likely helped by the oncoming threat of alien tentacle death and bottles of Tequila.
As a viewer we are reminded many times of their lives back home but are never shown them. This keeps them at an ambiguous distance from the main story and allows the actors to feed you just the emotions you need to know about their lives. This is very efficient storytelling. The growth of the couples relationship is gradual and very believable which is helped along by their naturalistic acting style which, while not astoundingly done, is pulled off well enough to pull you into their story.
Andrew also has a goal in mind to photograph one of these monsters alive. Something which appears to have rarely been done due to the nature of the military’s efficiency in killing any that leave the infected zone. For quite a large portion of the film all we see of them is crackly tv footage or their charred remains. When they do appear though they’re handled in such a way that, without seeing too much of them, the tension is ramped up as high as possible. One sequence in particular feels like a bit of a homage to Jurassic Park when Andrew and Samantha are trapped in the back of a 4×4 while a monster trashes some nearby vehicles and a few Mexican hired guards. There’s a lot of restraint on show here because clearly Gareth Edwards has the tools to really show these creatures off but instead he plays to the rule that less is more and always keeps them just out of full view or shrouded in the dark.
There is a lot of CGI in this film, most of which is nigh on unnoticeable. All over the film are signs that have had images replaced with warnings of the infected zone and signs of the way life has changed for Mexico. Tanks and Helicopters have been added into the shots to convey the increased military presence and, of course, the monsters themselves have been created digitally. The film goes a long way to prove that it’s quite possible to make a good looking special effects heavy film on a low budget. A few years ago George Lucas said that he believed film budgets would start decreasing as the technology got cheaper. Digital HiDef cameras are pretty cheap these days and clearly good CGI effects can be done by one guy on the cheap. Every CGI shot in the film was created by the director himself on his own. 250 shots in 5 months apparently. Anyone get the feeling the reason films have high budgets these days is largely down to over paid actors and the insistence on 3D? And soon we’ll have films being made at 48 frames per second so there’s a nice way to double a movies films stock budget.
There is also some interesting commentary on the way more wealthy countries and the less well off countries deal with a national crisis. Along the Mexican border to the infected zone we quite often see simple, tall wired fences blocking the monsters from getting in. But this does not work at all. Every year when they migrate they enter the cities and cause massive damage and casualties. A taxi driver remarks that there is nowhere else for him to go when asked why he stays. He and his family can’t afford to leave and just have to put up with the danger. When you eventually see the US border though things are quite different. The US government has built a giant concrete wall the whole length of the border with Mexico. They regularly bomb the infected zone with chemicals in order to kill the infection that has worked into the trees. Now you’d think that a threat as global as giant alien monsters, one started by the US themselves, would be dealt with differently .You’d think they’d work with the Mexicans to neutralise the threat. But from what we see of this world the US deal with it on their side and leave the Mexicans to deal with it on their meager budget. Maybe a commentary on the USA’s policies of taking care of themselves first via protecting their borders with their unending military budget? A problem they started no less but appear to be showing minimal responsibility for.I think so.
There are times when the effects are easily visible but on a $500,000 budget what they have achieved is something quite spectacular. The proof of Edwards skill comes in the films final scene which manages to be tense, spectacular and strangely touching within the space of a few minutes. I’d say he is one to watch but I am generally cautious of that sort of praise on a low budget film making director. Generally the directors that shine with 0 budget lose something in the transition to larger mainstream productions, John Carpenter and Robert Rodriguez being prime examples. Overall though this is a film that is well made and manages to be tense and touching where it needs to be and that is essentially what good film making is all about. Making the audience feel what you need them to feel at the time you want them to.