The story goes that Gareth Edwards pitched the idea for his monster movie set in a world where the aliens have been quarantined, got green-lit without a script, went into production with a skeleton crew, shot guerilla style, worked his largely impromptu cast into a frenzy of adlibbing, went home to cobble from a hundred hours of material and insert copious CGI, and delivered the final product for under $500,000. Good, even great movies have been born of such reckless confidence, but one shouldn’t assume Edwards’ bravado was matched by any blessed combination of talent, intelligence, or luck. Though it already has its champions, not to mention six BAFTA nominations, Monsters offers a solid case study in what happens when you don’t plan much: with way more coverage than actual inspiration or purpose, your story winds up sliding into cliché at nearly every turn. There's some fun to be had here, but it's mostly drowned out by hokeyness.
A cynical US photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) is ordered to escort his wealthy publisher’s idealistic daughter (Whitney Able) out of Mexico, an enormous chunk of which is “infected” with giant prawns from outer space—presumably the same galaxy as the quarantined aliens in District 9. So Monsters might be a border-crossing parable if it had any real ideas to it, or any real surprises. Yes, the couple meet-cute, the photographer resents his mission, but the girl speaks better Spanish, which comes in handy when they encounter all that Mexican monster bait. Getting back to America proves tricky, and they come to depend on each other, maybe even fall in love, blah, blah, blah. The plot twists itself into pretzels to keep them together, even going so far as to contrive a prostitute who steals a passport from the photographer’s hotel bedroom yet somehow doesn’t think to steal his $3,000 camera, which, by the way, you’d have to be an idiot to keep dangling around your neck all the time while traversing rural Mexico anyway.
But then Edwards’ Mexico isn’t the same one familiar to most Earthlings. Apparently the northern deserts have been replaced by jungle, and somebody moved Tepoztlán up toward the US border when nobody was looking. There are numerous such cultural and geographical oddities in Monsters, all of which could be forgiven if the movie had more energy or ingenuity, instead of dopey scenes of dumb white kids looking out on (displaced) Mayan ruins, abandoned suburbs, or alien convoys and uttering what amounts to a unanimous “Wow.” Maybe it’s true what they say about Americans not traveling enough.