Nirvana may have been the sad-eyed poets who rendered 1980s glitz obsolete one dourly strummed power chord at a time, but Blink-182 were the mischievous troubadours whose punk-tinged pop songs introduced a sillier flavor of coming-of-age angst that would flourish in the early 2000s. The two bands perfectly bookend the idiosyncratic decade that was the ‘nineties’90s. Each group rooted their personas in the punk ideal. But whereas Nirvana leaned into the angrier and more exclusionary aspects of punk by implicitly questioning the integrity of themselves and anyone who liked their music, Blink-182 sunnily democratized the genre through catchy songs that reconfigured the subculture’s bite as toothless naughtiness.
Rather than worry about what else they could be, as Kurt Cobain did with “All Apologies“, the members of Blink-182 preferred to winkingly question their age while running around in the buff in their music video, “What’s My Age Again?“. Though Nirvana was the more critically acclaimed outfit, Blink-182’s fingerprints were all over the early Aughts rise of Peter Pan bro culture, seen in shows like Jackass, emo-adjacent bands like Sum 41, and the rise of Axe body spray. Almost every trucker-hat-wearing, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer-crushing “hipster” I crossed paths with in the mid-’00s and early ’10s knew the lyrics to “What’s My Age Again?” by heart.
In addition to jibing with the turn-of-millennium zeitgeist, Blink-182’s 1999 debut album Enema of the State included a nod to a totem of ’90s culture: a fascination with the possibility of extraterrestrial life. “Aliens Exist”, a track written by the band’s co-founder and lead guitarist Tom DeLonge, features lyrics about “the creature from above” that the “CIA would say…is all hearsay.”
In more recent years, DeLonge has chased his longtime belief in the legitimacy of UFOs to interesting ends. He’s gotten involved with The History Channel’s Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation and founded To the Stars, a “vertically-integrated entertainment company” that trades in UFO-related content.
Monsters of California, DeLonge’s directorial debut, blends his UFO interests with the vibes of the band that first made him famous. The sci-fi film is the cinematic manifestation of a Blink-182 song crossed with a paint-by-numbers tour of paranormal activity. It centers on a trio of skateboard-and-punk-loving teenagers from Encinitas, a San Diego suburb close to where DeLonge grew up and Blink-182 formed.
The leader of this group of vanilla rebels is Dallas Edward (Jack Samson), a sweet-hearted kid who can’t shake a suspicion that the mysterious disappearance of his military pilot father had something to do with UFOs. He channels this suspicion into an infatuation with learning all he can about unexplained phenomena. To investigate the unknown, he enlists his two friends, the brainy Riley (Jared Scott) and weed-loving Toe (Jack Lancaster).
Together, they make pilgrimages to various hotspots of mysterious activity, where they experience a stellar success rate. Over the course of Monsters of California, Dallas and his boys make contact with a ghost, enter a Roswell-like military installation, and see a flying saucer, among other things.
The script, written by DeLonge and Ian Miller, intersperses these strange encounters with bushels of dick jokes and patches of voiceover narration through which Dallas ruminates on the nature of existence with mind-numbing claims like “Time is an illusion… every possible thing that could ever occur is occurring all at once.”
Thankfully, two subplots keep Monsters of California‘s story from collapsing under the weight of all the alien and adolescent hijinks. One involves Dallas objecting to his mother’s plans to marry a bookish suburban dad; the other touches on a burgeoning romance between Dallas and Kelly (Garbielle Haugh), a girl who’s new to Encinitas.
Monsters of California’s fatal flaw is that it can’t settle on an identity. It toggles between a Warner Brothers-like portrayal of an open-minded and heartbroken teenage boy growing up in a fractured nuclear family and a farcical take on supernatural encounters. The latter mode is epitomized by a scene where the three friends find Bigfoot in the California wilderness, only for the big fella to take a big pee on Toe before wandering back to the cave from whence he came.
Monsters of California may be about a group of wide-eyed teens exploring unexplained phenomena, but it shows little human-scale curiosity, which is to say it doesn’t seek to engage with questions about why people believe in aliens and ghosts and half-human, forest-dwelling monsters. (Watch Alex Lehmann’s 2022 lowkey drama Acidman for a thoughtful and beautifully rendered portrait of what compels individuals to look to the skies for answers and how these compulsions can affect their relationships with loved ones.)
Understandably, a teenager whose father disappeared in an unexplained incident would concoct theories about extraterrestrial life to help assuage the pain of loss. But Monsters of California is too busy pushing tired, half-baked theories about the nature of reality—”What if we learn that we all come from the same place? Like one vast field of energy?”—through Dallas’ voiceover narration to bother probing the root cause of the young man’s beliefs.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, given DeLonge’s track record as a guy who thinks UFOs are real. What is disappointing is that his first foray into filmmaking explores this subject matter in the most clichéd ways possible: a ghost in an old house, a Sasquatch in the woods, alien technology hidden in the bowels of a secret military base in the desert. The film makes matters worse by wrapping its unshakeable confidence in alien life in Dallas’ sophomoric theories.
But Monsters of California is not without merit. The scenes that revolve around Dallas’ home life are touching. Samson is an actor of limited range, as is Arianne Zucker, who plays Leah, Dallas’ mother. But this doesn’t stop either from investing significant effort and emotion into the scenes in which Dallas reflexively cringes at the idea of welcoming a stepfather into their home, to which Leah responds by describing the loneliness she feels as a widow and single mother.
David Byrne has gone on the record saying lead singers with bad voices are more believable than highly talented crooners. A similar dynamic reveals itself in the exchanges between Samson and Zucker. Neither actor will be nominated for an Academy Award. But the raw emotion they display in trying to convey what it feels like to be part of a family ripped apart by tragedy nonetheless strikes a moving chord. The scenes where Dallas woos Kelly with earnest stories about his father and his love of UFOs carry a similar charm.
The other actors turn in forgettable performances, save the fantastic Richard Kind, who squeezes every bit of value out of a cheesy supporting role as a former government scientist on the lam. Casper Van Dien’s turn as a lifelong Naval pilot who was Dallas’ father’s best friend is an extended cameo from the star of a ’90s science fiction film that qualifies as camp, Starship Troopers.
Monsters of California is a labor of love for DeLonge, even though the film will not merit a mention on the list of the artist’s career highlights. It is, however, true to his brand. Blink-182 is the only band that put a picture of a porn star strapping on a rubber glove on the cover of an album titled Enema of the State. DeLonge is the only filmmaker to greenlight a scene in which Bigfoot urinates on a stoned teenager. Whatever his age, DeLonge has always been true to himself, his interests, and his vision.