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Monsters

So The Avengers‘ box-office takeover is now underway and every studio in Hollywood is smart enough to stay out if its way. Fine by me. I’m not in any position to go see a new release, as my body is still recovering from the one-two punch of a midnight screening and a friend’s particularly raucous birthday party.

Once again, I look to my DVD queue for some way to pass the time. And given how today just happens to be the weekend of Cinco de Mayo, something appropriately Latino-themed is in order. I can understand how Monsters might seem an unlikely choice to anyone unfamiliar with the film, but you’d be surprised.

First of all, I should point out that the monsters of the title are actually aliens. You can argue about the accuracy of the title, but what are aliens if not monsters from outer space? Moreover, calling the film “Aliens” would not only have been a copyright infringement, but also way too on-the-nose.

See, the film is set in the modern day, but in an alternate timeline. In the film’s history, NASA sent a space probe to collect samples of possible extraterrestrial life forms in our solar system. This inadvertently started an alien invasion when the probe broke up on re-entry, crashed somewhere in Mexico, and freed the horrors inside. Soon after, the governments of America and Mexico started working together to quarantine the entire northern half of Mexico and to keep the alien presence contained there. Though of course they don’t entirely succeed and alien outbreaks frequently happen on the borders of the Infected Zone.

Yes, the governments of America and Mexico are able to successfully coordinate on matters of border security. What’s more, the States managed to complete building a huge wall along the entire southern border. All in just a few years. Maybe it’s just me, but I find this harder to believe than the alien invasion. But I digress.

The film picks up roughly six years later. Our main character is Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy, and I couldn’t make that name up if I tried), an American rookie photojournalist with some news company called “New World” (I assume, since that’s the title on his shirt). We meet Andrew when — by a stroke of either luck or misfortune, take your pick — he finally gets an assignment in San Jose. Unfortunately, his task isn’t to photograph all the havoc that the invasion has been causing in Southern Mexico. No, Andrew was sent down to retrieve his publisher’s daughter (Samantha Wynden, played by Whitney Able), who got mildly injured at the scene of an attack. What she was doing in San Jose to begin with is anyone’s guess, though it may have had something to do with her apparently troubled engagement (of course the love interest has a fiancee at the start).

Anyway, the narrative follows Andrew and Sam as they travel through a dangerous quarantine zone filled with hostile aliens. Go figure, it’s a very difficult journey and bad things happen along the way.

Right off the bat, it should be clear that there’s a ton of allegorical stuff to be found in this premise. Here’s an example: Our protagonists are presented with two options for crossing the Infected Zone. First, they can pay $5,000 for a ferry to take them around the Zone by sea. It’s by far the safer and more legal option, but the number of tickets are limited. The alternative is to pay $10,000 to pay armed guards, bribe officials, and so on, allowing them to cross the Zone on land. It’s incredibly dangerous, not to mention illegal, but it’s the only way to go when there aren’t enough tickets to go around.

In other words, the good people of Mexico can either pay through the nose to get to America by safe and legitimate means, or they can pay through the nose to try and sneak in at great personal risk. The parallels should be obvious to anyone with a working brain cell. Oh, and let’s not forget the irony that these are two documented U.S. natives trying to smuggle themselves into the States.

Another important thing to point out is that our two protagonists clearly represent different viewpoints. Sam appears to be perfectly fluent in Spanish, and she’s frequently seen speaking with the locals in a friendly and empathetic manner. Compare that to Andrew, who barely speaks any Spanish and only talks to the locals when absolutely necessary. Also, Andrew has an annoying tendency to get himself drunk while in the land of tequila.

Obviously, Sam represents the humanitarian perspective — those brave souls who are knowledgeable and concerned about the troubles south of the border — while Andrew is your typical ignorant American. That’s not to say he’s a bad person, it’s just that he’s there for entirely self-centered purposes. His only concern is to go in, do the work, get out, and get paid for the work somewhere along the way. And anyway, as Andrew pointedly reminds Sam, her dad doesn’t pay for pictures of happy faces. Andrew gets paid to document tragedy, and that’s what he’s going to do.

I might also add that Andrew has a bastard six-year-old son back home, whose mom is married to someone else. And let’s not forget the iffy situation regarding Sam and her fiancee. Clearly, the son and the fiancee represent the lives that the main characters have back home. There’s a neat little recurring thread in the movie, when Andrew asks Sam what she’ll be doing tomorrow. The first time she answers, she’s all like “I’m going back home, getting married, living happily ever after.” The second time, she answers “I don’t know.” As for Andrew, he’s clearly got the whole complex situation with his son sorted out at the start of the film. At the end of the film, we see strong signs of regret that he can’t be there for little Tommy. Both cases are more than just character development, they’re signs that these characters are afraid and uncertain about their lives, which does tend to happen in the middle of a battlefield.

Personally, I think that this is yet another message to take away from the film: That tomorrow is just an illusion afforded to those who live in comfort. Living all fat and happy in security, it’s easy to forget that death and destruction are everywhere, even in our own backyard. So take what you’ve got and live your life. But let’s get back to the setting.

The movie also features quite a few scenes that focus on the blood spilled and the property destroyed in Mexico as a direct result of the alien attacks. There’s a particular scene roughly half an hour in that shows a huge memorial for the dead. And there’s Andrew with his camera, taking so many pictures for his publisher back home.

In that scene, I could see the moment from both sides of the border. I could understand how those in Mexico actually see all those people dying, while those in America will only see the photos, if that. I found it very reminiscent of such border towns as Ciudad Juarez, where millions of people have died in the past few years, caught in crossfire between drug cartels and the (corrupt) local government. An infamous and bloody city where there are more murders than homicide investigators can possibly handle, and it’s right on America’s doorstep. Yet mainstream press coverage of it in the States is practically nil.

Speaking of which, there’s a scene early on in the film when Sam asks a local truck driver why he stays. As they drive through deserted streets and crumpled houses, the man replies that he’d much rather deal with the occasional violent outbreak than uproot his family and home.

As it so happens, I have a good friend who hails from Juarez, and I took the chance to ask him if this outlook was accurate. His reply was that there were a great variety of attitudes — some just want to get the hell out, some want to stay just to set an example, some are like the aforementioned truck driver who can’t leave, and there are even some who consider the violence to be entertainment — all of which more or less even out. But then he said this:

Since last year, the divisions between these kinds of people are decreasing. There have been news recently of a lot of the “goners” coming back since they couldn’t get their businesses to work in the USA (policies and racism for the most part), people are going out to eat and drink again and a lot of people are starting to see a possibility of Juárez in their futures.

Now I’m disappointed that the movie didn’t explore this scenario. Failing in America and having to go back to living in Mexico would have taken on a whole new terrifying dimension in this context.

By the way, I can’t help wondering what it looked like when the aliens of this film started invading Juarez. There’s a movie I’d love to see. I’m thinking it would look something like Attack the Block on a city-wide scale. But again, I digress.

The third act of the film follows our protagonists through the southern part of the States, which turned out to be a very neat move. It turns out that the aliens have really done a number on the neighboring American towns, leaving them completely destroyed and deserted. In many ways, the scene here looks identical to that which we saw in Mexico. Draw your own interpretations.

But for all of this, what about the aliens themselves? Well, I’ll put it this way: The film’s reported budget was only half a million dollars, and it shows. The aliens look quite good for that budget, but they’re still a far cry from lifelike (though to be fair, the CGI aircraft and buildings look very good). Even worse, their design leaves a lot to be desired. Anyone remotely familiar with the works of H.P. Lovecraft will already know exactly what these aliens look like. Then again, the aliens’ screentime is surprisingly limited. Standing on the shoulders of Jaws before it, the filmmakers embrace their technical and monetary limitations by developing the monsters into an omnipresent offscreen threat. After all, the entire movie is about the havoc these aliens have wreaked, and they’re either directly or indirectly responsible for pretty much everything we see onscreen.

And of course, there’s the matter of what they represent in an allegorical sense. Through most of the film, I figured that the aliens were a physical manifestation of the border between US and Mexico. I thought they were a force to drive the two countries even further apart so that their mutual differences and attitudes could be highlighted in greater detail. But then the climax came, and something else clicked.

Throughout the entire film, we Homo sapiens were laboring under the assumption that these alien forces had come to wipe us off the map, and that we either had to kill them or be killed. Yet the climax suggested the possibility that maybe these aliens don’t have an agenda at all. Maybe the conflict only exists due to lack of communication and understanding between species. That’s not to say with absolute certainty that the aliens come in peace, just that there’s a distinct possibility that maybe they’re just trying to get through whatever their version of life is. Moreover, this metaphor doesn’t necessarily have to represent Americans and/or Mexicans. The concept as presented could potentially apply to anyone, from whole cultures to distinct individuals.

Anyway, all of this might sound familiar. At the first mention of a science-fiction allegory set in a foreign country made by a first-time director with a minimal budget, of course anyone with an attention span is going to think of District 9. However, as much as I respect Neill Blomkamp’s opus, that film was still faulty in a lot of ways that this film isn’t. Specifically, District 9 suffered greatly for being far too preachy. The bad guys were cartoonishly evil and the premise of making an oppressor turn into the oppressed was rather contrived in its execution. Compare that to Monsters, which offers a much greater degree of nuance with much less preaching (though a bit of preaching is there, don’t get me wrong). Additionally, the story of outsiders in a strange culture trying to make their way back home is a much simpler story that gets the point across in a way that’s easier to accept and understand.

That said, there are some rather glaring problems with the story. For example, there’s a point when Andrew loses all of their money and passports for entirely avoidable reasons, yet Andrew himself is never held accountable for it. He never gets the slightest bit of blame. Even worse, there are multiple times when the characters hear a strange noise, only to just stand around listening to it instead of getting the fuck out of there. Oh, and let’s not forget the scene in which Andrew finds a tree covered in alien spores and actually has the nerve to knock on the tree. It’s such a shame, because Andrew and Sam are otherwise very three-dimensional characters with a lot of chemistry. But just as I find myself sympathizing with these characters, they do something so stupid that I think “You know what? You deserve to die out there.”

So, bottom line, how is Monsters? Well, anyone who sees this movie expecting a thrilling horror or an action spectacular is going to come away disappointed. But if you’re in the mood for some very intelligent science fiction, this is for you. Though the screenplay does stumble at times, the film still offers a tremendous amount of socio-political allegory centered around a creative premise that’s explored to a thoroughly impressive depth. The budget is quite visibly small, but every dollar is stretched to such an ambitious degree that it’s hard to believe this was writer/director Gareth Edwards’ first movie. I should also add that both of the lead actors put in very charming performances and the production design is beautifully crafted from start to finish (though the aliens themselves might have benefited from a more creative design).

Moving forward, Gareth Edwards is currently waist-deep in a very high-profile gig for Legendary Pictures. He’ll be directing (another) American relaunch of Godzilla, which — before it got buried in camp and Roland Emmerich’s incompetence — was one of the most revered sci-fi monster movies/socio-political allegories in cinema history. Even as someone who isn’t a fan of Godzilla, I look forward to seeing what Edwards does.

P.S. Special thanks to Oscar “TheMovieDude” Moreno for his statement on Juarez.

2 Comments

  1. Ping from Joshua:

    Strangely, I heard this film was quite divisive among viewers. The main criticism I heard was primarily the fact that the two main leads were hugely unlikable and killed the film for them.

  2. Ping from Curiosity Inc.:

    I’m not entirely sure I’d agree, but I can certainly see where the criticism is coming from.

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