Film Review: Monsters

If you imagine ‘Monsters’ to be another ‘Aliens’ style rollercoaster ride of a movie then prepare for disappointment. This film is more low-key, restrained and interesting than that. Approach ‘Monsters’ without preconceptions and you will discover a startlingly original take on the well-worn theme of humanity versus invaders from outer space.  Some have compared it to ‘District 9,’ the sleeper hit from earlier this year. Whereas that film switched its novel concept mid-way through in favour of  more conventional sci-fi action, ‘Monsters’ sticks resolutely to its guns and delivers a politically poignant story where the aliens are just the icing on the cake.

‘Monsters’ begins six years after a NASA probe to the moon of Europa has returned to Earth, bringing tiny life forms back with it.  These creatures have subsequently grown big, really big. At full size, they resemble what might happen if a giant squid got it on with a brontosaurus. Luckily for the extra-terrestrials, the probe crash-landed in the waters off Central America enabling them to thrive in the warm climate and practically colonise Mexico. The US government reacts to this threat from the South in typically belligerent style by building a huge wall to keep the visitors out, declaring Mexico to be an ‘infected zone’ and proceeding to bomb the hell out of it.

On the wrong side of the zone is photo-journalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) who is covering the ongoing conflict and the resulting collateral damage suffered by the locals.  Kaulder finds himself reluctantly saddled with a new mission to find the bosses’ daughter, marine-biologist Sam Wynden (Whitney Able), and make sure she gets on a boat back to the US mainland. A five-thousand dollar bribe to a corrupt official secures their passage but a night on the tequila ends in the couple being robbed of both their tickets and passports. There is only one other, far more perilous option available to them, namely travelling by land under armed escort through the infected zone itself. Naturally, this proves to be a less than straight-forward route.

‘Monsters’ feels less like a sci-fi film and more of an indie road movie in which the path just happens to pass through alien occupied territory. The film is some way in before we even see the creatures. Up to then, they are glimpsed on grainy news footage or heard bellowing like distressed whales in the far- off distance. Instead, the story concentrates on the human participants and their relationship which develops under considerable duress. As is normally the way in such fiction, their friendship starts off a little spiky but the pair warm to each other on their dangerous journey home.

If this sea-change is more believable in ‘Monsters’ than some other movies, it might well be because the two leads were already a real-life couple before shooting began. Their scenes together, largely improvised by the actors, contain understandable sexual frisson and some sharp dialogue.  When Sam asks Andrew if he feels bad that his job involves exploiting the misfortunes of others the journalist shoots back with, “What? You mean like a doctor?”

Just like ‘Paranormal Activity’ and ‘The Blair Witch Project’ before it, the creativeness of ‘Monsters’ was suckled on the nipples of necessity.  It was shot on location in Guatemala, Belize and Mexico with a four-man crew and a two-hundred thousand dollar budget.  Locals found themselves roped in to play minor roles and an ongoing drugs war may have put the film-makers in danger but it meant there was plenty of opportunity to grab footage of military hardware.  The two unfamiliar main performers (McNairy’s biggest role to date was in the enjoyable romance ‘In Search of a Midnight Kiss’) were more willing to take physical and professional risks than bigger names may have dared to. With director Gareth Edwards’ background in special effects, the scenes of destruction, including plane wreckage in a river, and the aliens themselves are rendered convincingly.

What really lifts ‘Monsters’ above the competition is a subtext which will probably inspire a good many essays from future film studies students. There are obvious parallels here in the way that the American government conducts its campaign against the ‘invaders’ with other ‘wars on terror’. Those who suffer the most at the hands of the bombings are the ordinary people caught in the firing line, those too poor to buy themselves a trip to safety.  “Who are the real monsters?” reads the Spanish graffiti written on a shrine to the innocent dead.  It is a question that Edwards clearly wants his audience to ask, not only in terms of his own scenario but also of Western intervention in general. The picture painted by the news broadcasts in ‘Monsters’ does not, perhaps, show the absolute truth, an idea borne out by the ambiguity of the film’s ending.

For Andrew and Sam, the journey across the ‘infected zone’ is one of discovery which gives them new insight into the land which they are struggling to return to. “It’s different to be looking at America from the outside in,” comments Andrew as they finally approach the containment wall.  In this way, ‘Monsters’ wants to make you think as well as entertain you. If I had to make a comparison with another film, I would say that ‘Monsters’ was more like a cut-price version of ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ as, like that Spielberg epic, it is an experience that stimulates your mind and leaves you with a sense of awe.

About Alan Diment

Is a freelance writer and film critic. A total film buff who lives and breathes movies.

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