If a genre is a conversation, then Monsters (directed by Gareth Edwards) stands out as a film with something to say to both the alien invasion and giant monster genres.
Set in Mexico in the near future, a NASA probe has crash-landed on earth and brought extra-terrestrial DNA with it. The extra-terrestrials spread and claim a large swath of Mexico and brush up against the USA, which has built a massive wall to keep out the creatures and to quarantine their ‘infected zone’.
The leads in the film are Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist looking for a big-money picture (a shot of an extra-terrestrial in action or, sadly, a child killed by an extra-terrestrial). He starts the film seeming distant and lacking empathy. His boss taps him to find and collect Samantha (Whitney Able), (the boss’ daughter) and to ensure her safe return to the USA. The relationship between the two, which becomes central to the story, starts lukewarm at best, as Andrew resents being reduced to a babysitter and Samantha rails against being shuttled back home to a marriage in which she seems to have no interest.
The bulk of the film is comprised of Andrew and Samantha’s troubled trip home, which replicates and serves as a metaphor for illegal immigration. They face roadblocks replicating the troubles faced by illegal Mexican immigrants and highlight how difficult trying to escape your conditions can be with just a few cases of bad luck or poor judgement calls (these mostly being Andrew’s fault).
The titular monsters of the film are portrayed as innocuous, only becoming aggressive when threatened. They seem for all the world to just be another type of animal trying to live out their normal cycles, even when they’re regarded as abominations. This portrayal is sealed by a touching scene at the end of the film that seals our notions of the extra-terrestrials and slam home the reading that the entire situation is both over-blown and being capitalized upon by the governments involved (US and Mexico mostly).
In relation to other films in these traditions, Monsters shows us alien invaders which are less a malign invading force than an animal introduced to an unfamiliar ecosystem. They are ‘monsters’ only when we make them out to be, and therefore become agents of political expediency. While the largest of these creatures are as impressive as the Cloverfield monster or any of the kaiju from Japanese giant monster films, they are essentially innocent. This presents an argument that monsters are what you make of them, and when you make something a monster, you risk becoming one yourself. The film’s messages are far from subtle, and are not at all expertly made.
The lead actors are asked to carry the weight of the film, and don’t exactly rise to the task. Monsters is generally a very quiet film, and the leads leave a great deal un-said for much of the film, character being revealed over time as the two bond and let one another in emotionally. However, as much as this progression is organic, the narrowness of the cast means that perhaps too much is told rather than shown while still leaving many things un-known, especially when it comes to Andrew and Samantha’s backstories. In having such a limited perspective, we lose out on some of the larger socio-political implications of the situation.
The film presents those implications in the very particular case of the leads and leaves a great deal of the other repercussions to the imagination through uncertain gestures and indications by the film. There is a great chance to read into things, to try to put things together, which will appeal to some. If you’re looking for a cut-and-dry monster movie, however, this will not satisfy. It ends up being equal parts romance, monster movie, and political allegory. The film still delivers monster action, but nowhere near as much as what you’d expect from a traditional kaiju flick or alien invasion film.
Both the soundtrack and the visual effects are impressive, mostly in how naturalistic they are. The monsters come across as very believably organic. They look like possible alternative animal evolutions rather than creatures dreamed up from a person’s nightmares to scare audiences, which goes a long way to presenting the creatures as the default-benign creatures the film ultimately shows them to be, only becoming terrifying when human intervention pushes them to defend themselves.
If a quiet film of relationship drama with socio-political implications sounds at all interesting, then Monsters is worth a viewing. If you’re looking for something different from a monster movie or alien invasion film, it may also satisfy that aesthetic.
The Blu-Ray set includes a large variety of extras (all in hi-definition), including a digital copy of the film through iTunes and feature commentary by the director and the lead actors. The commentary includes discussion of the production process, and presents Edwards as a thoughtful storyteller worth watching in the future. Also included are various interviews with the actors and director, behind-the-scenes featurettes and deleted scenes.