Monsters didn’t get much of a theatrical release, but it did garner some strong reviews and comparisons to other recent “indie” sci-fi movies like Moon, and especially District 9. Like the latter movie, Monsters maps an alien encounter onto familiar political issues. Because of solid character work, I found it a lot more engaging than District 9, or the other big cinéma-vérité-monster-movie Cloverfield.
Mexico has been infected with alien lifeforms that can poison organisms on Earth and grow into giant monsters. The US has attempted to contain the creatures in Mexico, fencing off a giant “infected zone” in northern Mexico and conduction air raids throughout the country, making it into an alien warzone. Samantha (Whitney Able) is the daughter of a big-time newspaper magnate, and she has somehow washed up in Central Mexico. Her father charges a photographer named Kaulder (Scott McNairy) with getting her back to the safety of the United States. He’s unenthusiastic, though he does have the hots for Samantha; he also botches the transport, which forces them to take a dangerous path through the infected zone.
Most of the film consists of understated interactions between Kaulder and Samantha, but these scenes work really well. Writer/director Gareth Edwards* does great work with the dialogue, and the acting from the two unknown leads is quite good. They don’t fall into instantaneous Hollywood love, but they are drawn to each other, and into danger, by a mutual dislike of the lives they’re living. The film is focused entirely on these two characters, and their relationship, and it works. We’re not stuck with the yuppie douchebags of Cloverfield or the human walking disaster that is Wickus in Dictrict 9, but the characters aren’t perfect either. Edwards also makes great use of his Latin American locations, and he frames his characters in some really beautiful shots, though the geography is screwy (where exactly is that tropical Mayan temple on the US border? I’d love to visit it). The people of war torn Mexico also get a voice in several small roles that round off the world quite nicely and subtly.
The monsters don’t do much. They help to set the scene, that’s for certain, and I actually like the way they’re used as background material for almost the entire movie. You know that they have to make some climactic appearance though, and the scene where they do feels tacked on and unnecessary. Also, while I give the movie credit for being subtler (and far less misanthropic) than District 9, I’m not sure that the metaphor does come through clearly. Does the monstrous alien infection represent the drug wars that are ripping though northern Mexico and threatening to spill into the United States? I think so, though the movie doesn’t seem to have much to say about them other than they’re really bad. Maybe we’re supposed to focus on the callous way the American military operates across the border? Maybe. This movie should be all about the border, the line that shapes the two nations’ relationship and the lives of the people that live along it – it’s the characters main objective, but not much else is said about it. Also, a Mexican character with a bigger role sure would have been nice.
Still, it’s solid, character-driven filmmaking. It was quite good at being what it was, even if it could have done more with its sf metaphor. I'm not too sorry to see the nominators skip it, but it might have been a nice addition to the field if, say, we'd waited to nominate the complete Deathly Hallows next year.
*maybe I should mention that this is a British production, but, I’ve never met an American named Gareth so maybe it’s obvious