The title is, of course, a misnomer; the monsters are in fact aliens. But that film title was taken a while back and [Spoiler Alert!] Attack of the Giant Alien Octopus just sounds too much like something from the oeuvre of Ed Wood. And Gareth Edwards is no Ed Wood*.
He makes his directorial debut with Monsters (which he also penned) and displays a confident command of the medium, a command made more impressive given the on-location shooting in South America, two unknown if not amateur actors carrying the film (all other cast are locals), and a budget reportedly no higher than $500k.
That budget is perhaps part of the reason Edwards prefers to provide only teasing glimpses of the aliens throughout the film. Edwards comes from a special effects background so knows what he's doing, but half a million and the best computer software will only get you so much. So he improvises, and like the best horror (although I'm not sure I'd label Monsters 'horror', or even sci-fi, for that matter), he discovers that the idea of something can be just as effective, if not more so, than showing it.
Photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy, my new favourite name!) is asked to escort Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), the daughter of his publisher, out of Central America where she was holidaying, and back to the United States. Samantha has just survived an attack on her hotel by the aliens but when they miss the last connecting ferry to the States, the pair decide to trek through the 'infected zone' to the US border.
We are told in an opening prologue the monsters arrived on Earth six years ago following a NASA discovery probe was sent to Jupiter. That probe crash landed in Central America where the aliens have since roamed. The creatures are nocturnal and are only really active during their mating season. They are destructive but not intentionally so; kind of like elephants that trample Indian villages. But that hasn't stopped the US responding to the threat by building a giant wall along the Mexican border and providing 24-7 military patrols.
Of course, there's a political allegory there but I don't think that was Edwards' main intention. It's certainly not as obvious as the apartheid themes in last year's surprise hit, District 9, which Monsters could draw easy comparison with. But Neill Blomkamp had a budget of $30 million and the backing of Peter Jackson; Edwards' is more guerilla filmmaking. But a comparatively miniscule budget can go a long way when you combine it with a really strong idea and undeniable talent.
*Ed Wood was a film director in the 1960s who is hailed as making some of the worst films of all time, including Plan 9 From Outer Space. You should check out the wonderful 1994 Tim Burton film, Ed Wood, starring Johnny Depp (of course!) as the filmmaker.