Oct 29 2010

ReThink Reviews – “Monsters” Proves Low Budget Effects Are Affective

Rethink ReviewsTaking a deeper look at current and past films and how they relate to the world today.

Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.

Read his reviews online at ReThinkReviews.net. Watch his videos at www.youtube.com/user/jsjkim, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ReThinkReviews. ReThink Reviews’ theme song is by Restavrant.


It’s Halloween, the perfect time for a good old-fashioned monster movie. Or, in the case of Gareth Edwards’ film MONSTERS, a decidedly new-fashioned monster movie, partially because of its sci-fi slash monster slash road trip slash romance story, but mostly because of the way the movie was made, utilizing all that affordable digital technology has to offer.

MONSTERS takes place in present day, where six years earlier, a space probe sent to study one of Jupiter’s moons crashed on its return to earth, releasing micro-organisms that quickly evolved into giant creatures who resemble a cross between an elephant and a bio-luminescent octopus. Mankind has attempted to adapt to this new normal, with the US sealing off and militarizing a, quote “Infected Zone” along the Mexican-American border to keep the creatures from getting into the United States.

Scoot McNairy plays Kaulder, a photographer on assignment in Mexico trying to earn big bucks by getting photos of the elusive creatures. He gets thrown together with Sam, played by Whitney Able, his boss’ daughter who was traveling in Mexico when she was injured in a monster attack. Kaulder is told to get Sam back to the US, but when they’re unable to take the easy route by ferry, they are forced to embark on a dangerous journey across the infected zone to reach the US border.

But what’s earned MONSTERS the most attention is the way it was made. With a budget estimated at half a million dollars, and possibly a lot less, MONSTERS was shot on hi-def digital in South and Central America with a crew of just four people, with McNairy and Able improvising most of their dialogue and local non-actors handling the smaller roles. Perhaps most amazingly, the 250 effects shots in MONSTERS were created on a laptop by Edwards by himself, who had experience as a special effects engineer working in television. Using two laptops donated by Intel, Edwards worked on the effects while his editor assembled the film.

While digital video, small crews and laptop editing are common in the world of indie film, this is one of the first times we’ve seen them used to make a convincing giant monster movie on a shoestring budget. The effects are smartly used, seamlessly adding some fighter jets here, some destroyed buildings there, and, of course, the occasional tentacled alien. At the same time, the handheld digital cinematography, natural light, non-actors and exotic locations give MONSTERS a documentary feel, sort of a smaller-budget cross between DISTRICT 9 and THE ROAD.

I’d heard that MONSTERS had some political themes, and they’re there if you dig.
There are echoes of America’s war on drugs in South and Central America, with protests over US-caused civilian casualties and the spraying of a toxic chemical meant to stop the spread of alien infection, as well as some talk about the consequences of militarizing borders. I don’t think the monsters are a metaphor for illegal immigration, but I suppose you could go there if you wanted.

If you’re looking for big scares this Halloween, MONSTERS probably isn’t the movie for you, since it really is more of a road movie. I also thought the main characters were not as developed as they could’ve been, nor did I really buy their emerging romance. But if you’re an aspiring filmmaker or are looking for an example of how far the filmmaking goalposts have shifted, where even a convincing giant monster movie can be made with a tiny crew and budget, some creativity and a laptop, MONSTERS may be just the kind of inspiration you’re looking for.

MONSTERS is rated R and is in theaters now.

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