Boasting two midnight movie–loving Alamo Drafthouse theaters as screening venues and having cultivated a relationship with Fantastic Fest, SXSW has always displayed a strong lineup of genre films. This year’s program leaned even more heavily towards science fiction, in general, and films dealing with space travel and alien life, in particular. Cargo follows a human population forced to remain in orbit after planet Earth has been destroyed, the inverse of Earthling, in which an alien race has unknowingly been left stranded on our planet; Predators, which the fest showed a few early scenes of, is of course an extension of one of the most popular hostile-alien film chains in history, and Hubble 3D transported the audience into a planetarium-style IMAX experience.
Providing a low-key, charmingly local slant on the topic is Mars, which was fittingly featured in the festival’s Lone Star section. The film, directed by University of Texas at Austin professor Geoff Marslett and featuring the acting chops of festival golden boy Mark Duplass, follows three intrepid astronauts as they make the first human journey to the red planet in search of intelligent life. The film has a wickedly bone dry sense of humor and a mastery of the non sequitur, not to mention a boldly low-fi, pseudo-rotoscoped animation style of Marslett’s own design. Distinctive to the culture from which it emerged, to the point that a few allusions were lost on me (for example, a friend had to explain the twisted significance of casting consummate local performer Kinky Friedman as the President of the United States), Mars does a surprisingly subtle job of transporting that Texas icon, the cowboy, believably into space, considering how satiric it is. Unfortunately, however, the offbeat creativity was handily undone by a scattered, drawn-out structure, some inconsistent and underdeveloped characters, and spots of groan inducing, amateur acting.
Unlike Mars, which follows a romance unfolding in the serene splendor of space, Monsters, a moderately budgeted, high-impact film by the Sci-Fi Channel’s 48-hour film contest winner, Gareth Edwards, presents a love story that bloom from adversity, in a world of increasing crisis after an alien invasion on the U.S.-Mexico border. The film is everything one would want from a monster movie—tense, smart, and slightly gory—and yet is also surprisingly thoughtful, with unexpectedly measured pacing and a well-crafted allegory for immigration and what it means to be “other.” This is explored both in the external terms of border conflict but also in the more personal fact of the two protagonists’ feelings of isolation from their society. The moment when the creatures are fully revealed, the downfall of many a film in the genre, is both strangely beautiful and technically impressive.
During a Q&A after the film, articulate editor Colin Goudie recounted how Edwards taught himself how to create the film’s hundreds of notably well executed special effects, which include full body shots of towering, glowing squidlike beasts. Also worth mentioning is the palpable chemistry between leads Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able; when they finally kiss, in a moment of complex anguish, it makes your stomach flip. Apparently the actors felt it too, since they are now engaged. Monsters was picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures, the company behind the likewise genre-bending monster movie The Host, in one of the few mid-festival purchases in SXSW’s fifteen-year history. Hopefully the fact that Monsters is an English-language film will ensure greater success at the box office than managed by that equally deserving Korean gem. —Farihah Zaman