After being treated to a host of modern classics in the 1990s, science-fiction fans faced a cinematic drought once the decade turned, something that lasts even to this very day, where rare gems like Children of Men and District 9 come along far and few between to offer brief respite. Even though both of those movies were adaptations, they felt fresh thanks to keen filmmaking and sharp storytelling, and their contemporaries languish because the genre market is suffused with big names we’ve seen before on comics, novels, video-games, other movies, the shelves at Toys R Us, and – coming soon – board games. In most cases, this has proved to be quite the burden, as the commercial potential for such franchise titles pushes studios to pump them with many millions of dollars, which limits artistic risk-taking.

For such risk-taking we tend to look toward the indie scene, though as of late the line between independent film and big studio picture has blurred with the latter trying to ape the style of the former (Juno, Little Miss Sunshine), and the ease of access to industry standard tech for consumer-level videomakers. Great visual effects are no longer solely the territory of giants like Digital Domain and Weta Workshop, they can be found online in fan films like Metal Gear Solid: Philanthropy and Portal: No Escape. It would seem then, that even the independent science-fiction movie could be dumbed down.

That is of course if you believe that effects and expensive things come at the price of good storytelling and compelling characters. There does exist that obnoxious stereotype where all indies are good and minimalistic like The Man from Earth and all studio flicks are overblown and underthrought like Transformers 3. Time and again this has been proven false, so don’t be heartbroken when you discover that Monsters, as directed by Gareth Edwards, looks the part of a Hollywood spectacle.

In it, we follow off-and-on anti-hero Andrew Kaulder, played by Scoot McNairy, and the ever-needy Whitney Able, played by Samantha Wynden, as they journey through a Mexico infected by a mysterious alien menace. Not much about the aliens, referred to as ‘creatures’ here, can be gathered from watching the film, and certainly not the expository opening text that sets the scene. We come to assume that they’re hostile, as we see a military platoon fighting one and running around screaming like an updated moment from classic 50s B-movie science-fiction.

This film does feel rather modern, escaping its pulp alien invasion roots by employing shaky-cam (a staple of the independent movie) and documenting a human story. Much like Signs and to some extent Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, the aliens are significant, but a background element. We get the sense in all three movies that Battle: Los Angeles is happening somewhere, but somewhere not here. It’s an interesting take on the invasion story, and it serves well here.

The alternative would of course be unimaginable and inappropriate, for Monsters, as we might surmise from its deliberate title (going in we doubt that the eponymous Monsters will shake out to be the aliens in the end), is a drama. Elements of reality cross over to this shattered landscape – Mexican borders, invasive American military, poverty, and xenophobia, and very quickly it’s known that the movie isn’t here to showcase explosions and car chases and Transformers, but bring to light ideas. Like the greatest in science-fiction, Monsters makes a grab at asking the big questions, challenging us to shake our noggin awake.

Whether or not it succeeds in this regard seems somewhat inconsequential – audiences can sit down with District 9 and have a laugh or two before being absolutely riveted, and never put a thought to what’s just under the surface. Monsters is the same way; not as exciting, but engaging enough to make a satisfying experienced, filled out by devastated and desolate but always beautiful landscapes, and technically hampered only by flat dialogue and spotty acting.

Kaulder and Sam climb their way up to an ancient pyramid for a night’s rest later on in the film, and look out over the US-Mexico border, which has grown to a superstructure and replaces the horizon. They’ve been through hell to reach this point, and remark on how odd it feels to be outside America, looking in. We feel that this movie could have ventured to prod deeper and benefitted, but know also that moments like these could have played out much more heavy-handedly. So while this may stand out in a line of grim superhero movies and giant robot spectacles, it doesn’t quite reach the bar set by Children of Men or Signs, but it was a hearfelt effort nonetheless.

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