Directed by Gareth Edwards. Starring Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able. (2010, R, 97 min.)

REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., Oct. 29, 2010

Director Gareth Edwards has said in interviews that he initially envisioned that his first film would be told via a handheld subjective camera, Blair Witch-style, and from the perspective of survivors of an alien invasion. Then Matt Reeves' Cloverfield came along in 2008 and did just that, thus inadvertently – blessedly – scuttling any shaky-cam plans for Monsters. Instead, Edwards favors long, still, and frankly stunning shots that could have been mistaken for a "My Mexican Honeymoon" scrapbook – Mayan ruins, a pontoon boat glossing over water at sunrise – were it not for the background ’scapes of bombed-out towns and baby monsters nesting in trees to muck up the works. And what magnificent muck: This is apocalypse in medias res, set six years after a NASA probe fell to Earth – at the U.S./Mexico border, to be specific – and unleashed alien matter that has since thrived and multiplied. The military walled in the infected zone, as it's known, and once a year shuts down the coastal route between the uninfected portions of Mexico and America for the aliens' six-month breeding period. At the film's beginning, photographer Kaulder (McNairy), a sort-of professional creature chaser, reluctantly agrees to escort his boss' daughter, Samantha (Able), out of Mexico and back to her stateside fiancé; with two days to go before the military shuts down passage, their attempt to flee has a last-plane-out-of-Saigon feel to it. It goes without saying that all hell breaks loose – again and again and again – and Edwards' film (which world-premiered at SXSW Film 2010) is ruthlessly effective at teasing suspense while forgoing the shock-and-awe-and-goopy-gore so common to contemporary monster movies. Well, maybe not the awe: When Kaulder and Samantha finally come face to face with the creatures, there's a religiosity to the moment in the vein of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (There's audience awe, too, at how convincing Monsters' creatures and digitally composed backdrops look, considering the tiny budget; Edwards, previously a special effects artist, did all the FX work himself in post on a donated Dell computer.) While there are certainly political parallels to be made here – you don't make a movie about an Americas-splitting fence by accident – Monsters wears its pacifism lightly. If some of Kaulder and Samantha's observations sound naive, even banal, that's because the film is almost entirely unscripted (and, excepting McNairy and Able, performed by nonactors); there's a terrific authenticity to their deepening relationship, in the intimate details they selectively piece out, their teasing badinage when things are going well, and the bound-by-terror connection forged when things are going very badly indeed. Their slow burn is beautifully understated, and McNairy especially is a revelation as the semisurly Kaulder, a character far afield of the sweet neurotics McNairy has played for former Austin filmmaker Alex Holdridge (In Search of a Midnight Kiss). Forget the title: Monsters is a very human drama, and a forgiving one, at that. Nobody here – not the military, not the border businessmen who determine who stays and who goes, not even the monsters – are really monsters. That, too, may sound banal, but that's my fault and not that of the film, which is a startlingly original and haunting take on our ageless fear of otherness. (See "Space Invaders on a Shoestring Budget," Oct. 29, for an interview with the director.)

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