Let’s get one thing straight right from the off: Monsters is not Cloverfield. A lot of people who have seen the film have been surprised by just how different it actually is from what it seems to purport to be. I’m not accusing anybody of false advertising, mind you; it just feels like a different film to the one you might expect.
Because, to all intents and purposes, this looks like a Cloverfield-esque adventure, sure to be rife with action and big scary monsters. It really isn’t a spoiler (or if it is, then it’s the most minor sort) to reveal that there are hardly any monsters in this film. Almost none at all. Look past that slightly deflating revelation, however, and you will be able to relax into a film that may not be what it seems, but is still fairly good at what it does.
To be clear, the film does not feel restrained by its budget. When a film such as this one is released having been made under obvious financial constraints (obvious in the sense that we know about them prior to viewing, rather than any manifestation on camera) it is tempting to say ‘the filmmakers were held back.’ But there isn’t really a sense of that. Sure, a massive Hollywood budget would have provided more opportunities for crashing helicopters and bloody battles, but one gets the impression Gareth Edwards (director) would not have taken them even if he’d had the chance.
What the film does do is make good use of what it’s got – it’s nicely shot – and when the monsters do briefly appear, sensible use of light (or lack of it) and minimal visual effects combine to ensure that the film doesn’t feel hampered in any way. The film plays more like a science fiction (though we use the term loosely) road movie, with our two protagonists making their way through the ‘infected zone’ in Mexico, where the alien life forms, which emerged from a crashed NASA probe six years prior to on-screen events, are rampant. It actually ends up feeling rather analogous, devoting more time to commenting on war-time photography than to battling with aliens. The film’s most striking image (which I won’t spoil here) is hardly subtle symbolism (just in case we hadn’t guessed what they were trying to say, our hero spells it out for us) but is certainly affecting, conjuring an idea that is far more widespread than the confines of this film. There is also a lot of footage that purposefully feels quite languid and free roaming, as if the cameraman had simply been caught up in the events he is documenting which, given the film’s history (many of the on-location shooting was filmed without prior permission), is not unfitting. In actual fact, the underlying sense of documentary filmmaking ends up being far more subtle that something like Cloverfield, for example, which relies on the audience’s knowledge that what they’re seeing is amateur, accidental footage.
Monsters’ slightly bewildering tone (given the expectations many will go in with) is initially baffling but eventually quite pleasant, its sparse environments working well with the subject matter. The fact that nothing major really happens, and that the monsters are almost entirely off-screen, ends up being less of a problem than it may initially appear to be. It all ends up feeling a little inconsequential, but that isn’t enti rely intended as a derogatory statement. It’s stripped down and uniquely unwilling to pander to a baying action sensibility, which makes it uniquely enjoyable, but never brilliant.