But if you need a break from cliche scares and lookalike blockbusters and prefer more character-driven sci-fi--with relatable human beings who aren't wielding weapons or one-liners--then Monsters, an impressive micro-budget alien invasion flick from 2010, should hit your sweet spot. It certainly hit mine.
Set six years after an extraterrestrial species has populated a swath of northern Mexico now walled off from the United States, Monsters utilizes a War of the Worlds-like premise to concentrate on the human toll of an alien occupation--an occupation fought with increasing (and unscrupulous) force by a desperate U.S. military.
And yet the focus isn't on the military, or even the United States, but on the growing relationship between an American photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) and his boss's daughter (Whitney Able) as they try to make their way safely through the "infected" zone and back home. That makes Monsters as much indie road movie and relationship drama as sci-fi pic, a neat sleight of hand that should cater to genre geeks and film snobs alike.
Functioning as his own cameraman and effects designer, Edwards set out to make "the world's most realistic monster movie." To achieve that he used guerilla-style tactics, transporting his lead actors and a crew of four(!) to Texas and Latin America, where they shot improvised dialogue in found locations. Along the way they recruited extras and a supporting cast, convincing local bystanders, shopkeepers, and even soldiers to participate--achieving impressive results.
As with Jaws, which famously had to shoot around its barely functioning fake shark, budget limitations served an advantage here, forcing the director to keep his eerily luminescent (and well-realized) creatures mostly off-screen for much of the running time. Instead their menace is conveyed through sound and implication, as well as on the faces of the fear-wracked humans. It makes for a quietly gripping atmosphere, one that builds as we're given each new glimpse of these mysterious invaders.
Also playing to the film's strengths is the relative obscurity of leads McNairy and Able, whose lack of movie-star baggage and past associations lets us perceive them as people, not heroes, making their characters both more relatable and less easily pigeonholed. Their low-key performances--and dialogue I never suspected was improvised--remain engaging throughout, the chemistry between them growing slowly and naturally as the danger around them ebbs and flows.
For anyone wondering if it's possible for a modern monster movie to not be as noisy and generic as, say, Battleship or Transformers, this film proves there's a place for a more quiet type of genre moviemaking. Like Duncan Jones' Moon--another outstanding example of low-budget sci-fi--Monsters heralds a smart new directorial voice. Will Edwards, tapped to direct the forthcoming Godzilla remake, become the next Jones, who followed up Moon with Source Code; or Neill Blomkamp, who graduated from District 9 to Elysium? Or are we witnessing the birth of another Roland Emmerich? (Provide your own monster metaphor.)
The fact that he chose not to be involved with a Monsters sequel, which its producer promises will provide "the excitement, thrills and set pieces of a genre film," bodes well. But there's still that Godzilla in the room. Let's hope its summer-tentpole-sized budget won't blind Edwards to the rewards possible in stories founded on character, not spectacle. Although even if Godzilla does end up another bloated Hollywood mess, we can at least enjoy the understated pleasures of Monsters. Such cinematic creatures are rare, and will always be welcomed with open arms.