Written and Directed by: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able, and Mario Zuniga
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“I don't want to go home."
I can’t help but think I like the idea behind Monsters more than the final product itself. After all, it takes balls to title a movie Monsters and then completely foreground the human characters, with the titular beasts acting more as background noise. Pulling it off with any effectiveness is another thing altogether, and I suppose Gareth Edwards more or less does so with his debut feature, even if it does leave one with the feeling that it’s a carefully arranged bouquet of good intentions more than anything else.
In the not-too-distant future, extraterrestrials have crash-landed on Earth, specifically Mexico, most of which has been cordoned off as an “infected zone” that’s hostile for travelers. American photojournalist Andrew Kaulder frequents the fringes of this area and one day finds him tasked with escorting his boss’s daughter (Whitney Able) back to the States. When forces conspire to thwart her safe passage via ferry, the two must travel through the infected zone, where they begin to discover the truth about this region and its inhabitants—both those native to the area and the more recent intruders.
Obviously, Edwards has more on his mind than a typical, spectacle-driven monster movie. Instead, he comes at the genre in a fairly fresh way by capturing the aftermath of an attack; I always grew up wondering if folks in Japan eventually developed Kaiju insurance (It’s gotta count as an act of god, right? You can never be sure because insurance companies are the true monsters.) once Godzilla and friends decided to stomp out their cities on a frequent basis, and Monsters attempts to take a grounded approach to take stock of living in a post-Kaiju world. Unsurprisingly, the United States manages to make a political power play out of the situation by erecting a huge wall and leaving Mexico to fend for itself, a development pointing towards one of Edward’s true aims with Monsters, which becomes half political allegory, half indie-romance-drama.
Let’s start with unpacking the latter: Andrew and Sam are initially stand-offish, with the former only making a whiskey-fuelled move after a sweltering night on the town and despite the latter’s impending engagement. He has his own relationship baggage, and McNairy brings a believably weary quality to a woefully cynical character who makes a living by photographing death and destruction. But if I’m being honest, the romance between the two seems like a matter of procedure more than anything and treated as a mere inevitability when a platonic relationship may have been more natural—I think Edwards has plenty of material without cramming a romance that only seems to serve his larger allegorical purposes.
That inevitability hangs over most of the proceedings, which become something of a leisurely, well-photographed travelogue through the heart of a magically-realist Mexico, here realized with lush, earthy environs that stand in sharp contrast to the brief glimpses of a lifeless America. Andrew and Sam’s journey is lined with well-meaning locals, a cast-off, forgotten people who have become even more of an afterthought in the wake of the creatures’ arrival. Naturally, the film flips that script by relegating the monsters to the background, where they operate more as an impetus for survival and only occasionally emerge for what feel like dutiful check-ins. Despite the obvious stakes, this survival quest rarely feels immediate or intense, as the monsters are an unknown quantity, mostly described by various forms of media throughout the film. Like Andrew and Sam, we’re meant to be wary by default—after all, the government has designated their territory as a danger zone.
As the two would-be lovers learn more about the monsters and realize their awe-inspiring beauty, the lack of urgency is a bit more understandable. Once Edwards really turns the monster movie concept on its head to reveal exactly what he’s up to, he solidifies the already obvious, heavy-handed metaphor. It’s hardly subtle stuff, what with the two characters observing America’s wall and musing on how different it is to be on the outside looking in. The film’s obvious concerns with immigration make it the perfect companion to District 9 for a double feature of thinly-veiled but well-meaning allegories. I half expected one of them to realize that we’re the real monsters (but Cannibal Holocaust this ain’t, I guess).
Like Blokamp with District 9, Edwards marvelously realizes his grand vision despite a shoestring budget. There’s a tactility and rawness to the film that’s more palatable than many sterile, mega-budgeted blockbusters. During those few moments he does indulge the title characters, it’s clear that Edwards’s imagination owes more to Lovecraft than Kaiju films—I really love how monstrously weird and luminescent these creatures are. Strange beasts, indeed. His decision to consign them to the back-burner is, again, admirable—I will always champion a monster movie that insists on humanity. Monsters is especially insistent, and, even though is particular focus on a budding relationship amidst such chaos falls a bit flat, it finds moments of sublimity to extend beyond its immediate, headline-inspired concerns. If there’s any real terror here, it’s in the universal and existential angst of the film’s climactic moment, which posits that the cosmos has us randomly clashing into each other for chance encounters that are as fleeting as they are monumental. Rent it!
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