Year: 2010
Production Co: Vertigo Films
Director: Gareth Edwards
Writer: Gareth Edwards
Cast: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able

Ask any special effects artist/engineer and they'll tell you they've done their job when nobody notices it, when a special effect is a seamless part of a film and looks so realistic it belongs there in the real world on screen.

Put them in a small indie drama with a shaky handheld aesthetic and they become even more authentic. As a special effects guy, Monsters writer/director Gareth Edwards knows the tricks and some of the most successful aspects of his debut film are the signs throughout Central America warning of the biological threat following an alien invasion six years before.

Despite being about aliens and restricted zones, they're designed and rendered so beautifully, every one anchored in its locality perfectly according to the time and place. It's just one detail that makes Monsters among the best films of the year.

I'd heard of comparisons to District 9 and they're fair enough – this is another low-fi sci-fi flick wrapped up in political allegory. But you can ignore all the 'who are the real monsters' subtext and still enjoy a cracking tale complete with giant aliens.

A photojournalist gets a call while on assignment in Mexico and is told to rescue the daughter of the newspaper's owner from the aftermath of an alien attack and get her safely back to the US. When he reluctantly does and their only method of getting away by sea is cut off, they have to travel through the massive quarantine zone that runs all the way to the US border.

It plays like a drama about Mexicans making the desperate rush to reach America we all know so well from other films like Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada and Sin Nombre. The pair have to pay off local handlers and cops, travel by rickety and dubious means, sleep in the jungle and worry about much more than aliens.

But the shadow of the creatures – giant octopus shaped things the size of three storey buildings – hangs over the whole trip, and the first few times we see them is in the classic Jaws style, hidden behind shrouds of mist in the night amid screaming people and the roaring monsters. When the movie pays off and you do get a satisfying look at them over a service station at night, Edwards' CGI skills take flight.

In amongst it all, the realism and tenderness between real life married couple Able and McNairy is genuine and warm, their hopes and fears carrying the movie and filling it with emotion as well as thrills and action.

Once upon a time we never would have seen a small independent drama about alien invasions, it would have been one or the other. To see the big and fantastical (formerly the sole realm of the big studios) together with the quiet, well written and well acted is thrilling enough. To see it done this well is captivating, and this might be the movie of the year.

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