There are monsters amoung us – figuratively and literally – in the simple yet aptly titled not-quite-creature-feature, Monsters. Sometime in the near future a wee spot of primordial alien matter got all tangled up with a returning man-made space probe. After about 6 years the effects of the tag-along DNA have resulted in some rather large and terrifying beasties that call about half of Mexico, from Mazatlan to Tampico and all the way north to the American border, home. The Americans respond by building a towering and intimidating 30 meter high concrete wall that makes the $1.2 billion 2006 mandated (by Bush and company) fence looks like no more useful than to pen in goats. The term “Fortress America” is starting to sound rather closer to reality. It being the US-Mexico border, stuff is bound to penetrate and be met with an overabundance of force. Not quite Don Johnson in Machete, but you have to wonder if the response creates half the problem. While Monsters is no Starship Troopers, it is about as far from the crazy violence or anti-fascist bombast as possible, there is a satirical streak hidden under it all that probably would make Paul Verhoeven concede a knowing nod to its sub-textual, humanist slant.
Apparently, it was director Gareth Edwards’ goal to make the most ‘realistic’ movie about gigantic monsters invading earth as possible. If that means a quieter, more mundane tone, more a movie of our collective environment altered by the presence of alien beings rather than the typical crash-and-smash mayhem caused by invaders from Mars then so be it. He has succeeded in an act of alternate-future that feels real, it feels lived in, and there is a sense of the mundane and normalcy that is almost always lacking in pictures of these type. Shooting in the central American wilderness and small towns therein make for a gorgeous movie on top of its unconventional execution. To say it defies expectations, the constant comparisons to District 9 are, on one hand, appropriate yet still quite misleading. Monsters is not an action picture, it is a contemplative road picture. That it defies easy comparison is simply because there are not enough of these movies made to draw accurate comparisons. I was rather reminded by the opening hours of the 1980s TV miniseries “V” or perhaps Alien Nation; where the presence of extra-terrestrials make a large-scale change on society merely by existing in it. But it also evokes the social journey-films of Alfonso Cuarón, pick either Y tu mama tambien or Children of Men, there are similarities to both. We exist in our environments even as a collective societal shift from panic to uncertainty to ‘the new normal’ follows any major global ‘sea change.’ Of course, all of this inferred shock and awe happens offscreen, only implied by a few title cards. The Monsters could just have easily been another country’s military occupation of modern Mexico, or how the world at this point is rather used to the quagmire in Iraq after 6 years of US entrenchment. As it stands, the gigantic walking squids are here, and they have left their mark, but are now simply a part of the fabric of North American life. This is the greatest achievement of the film, and one that allows for a bit of consideration and politics, although, really the joy is simply existing in this plausible new world order. Part of me wishes that if someone is going to make Max Brook’s overcooked novel World War Z, Gareth Edwards would be the man to leaven out the breathless hyperbole of the ‘letters from the front’ and make it a mature allegory for adults.
The story itself does not directly concern the monsters, although their threat, presence, existence inform many of the decisions and directions the two principle characters choose. Andrew is a photographer stationed in Mexico for an American newspaper conglomerate charged with getting some clear and impressive photographs of the creatures around the border of the infected zone. He is pulled off assignment, very much against his own desires, to escort Sam, the daughter of the newspaper mogul, to the coast and put her on a ferry back to the US before the infected zone is increased. Andrew is impatient, but what else can he do when his boss’s boss’s boss gives him an assignment. Proving that the more impatiently you rush things, the more difficult you make them, through a series of bad decisions and bad luck, the couple end up having to take a direct path through the infected zone to get back to the United States. Edwards cast a real-life couple as his lead actors, and let them improvise their dialogue while they confront the more extreme of travel frustrations. There is an echo of Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, an American Indie cinema talkie vibe, that defines and informs the film as significantly as any of the science fiction elements. Of course, it is sporadically broken up by a close encounter, and the few incidents hold as much of a sense of wonder as terror, not unlike being in a war-torn country and only on occasion seeing the hot-conflict up front, or heck, taking the tour of Jurassic Park. Mostly it is broken military hardware scattered like so many discarded and neglected toys in the jungle and cityscapes. Scenic and unusual background to Americans on a third world road-trip to get home. There is an obsession with money as money enables mobility, and there is an obsession with itinerary and time before society or the creatures catch up. This plays interestingly on the relationship dynamics of the couple. That they are having a budding emotional connection that could be something more, if only the journey continued. They both, in a way, desire that the travel become their own new reality, despite the frustration, the transience and the danger or even because it makes them feel more alive. If they do return home, they will both have the usual mundane concerns of what to do next and of course family. Andrew has a divorced wife and a young child he does not see much of, Sam is about to be wedded, but they can be aloof and free while ‘on the road.’ It is the way any large scale disaster, be it the East Coast Blackout in 2004 or Hurricane Katrina scatters up societies priorities enough to allow for a ‘break in real life.’ Yea, the Monsters are a big old metaphor for random and rapid shifts in society, a Force Majeure with tentacles, that only cause us to enforce a new normal upon ourselves.