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Monsters Bail

March 7th, 2011

Last year I heard a lot about the cheapie independent sci-fi road movie Monsters. Reputed to have been made for under a half-million dollars–with special effects created using off-the-shelf software–it was supposed to be a brave, understated take on the giant monster subgenre, a Cloverfield for the art-house crowd.

I didn’t manage to catch its brief theatrical run, but last night I sat down with it on Netflix Watch Instantly. I’d love to be able to proclaim that Monsters was all that and a bag of popcorn, but I found myself increasingly disappointed as the story unspooled, even moreso on further reflection.

Monsters is pitched as the movie that occurs once the invasion is over. Six years after a space probe crashed in the Mexican jungle, alien lifeforms have sprung up in a so-called “infected zone” bordering the American southwest. Titanic, bioluminescent creatures that appear to be the love children of octopi and giraffes roam by night, occasionally wandering into human-settled areas. The U.S. military conducts regular bombing runs against the beasts*, but for the most part people accept the new normal.

A photojournalist is tasked with escorting the daughter of his magazine’s publisher out of Mexico before the harbors close for good. But when their passports are stolen, they hitch a ride across the infected zone. Love blossoms. Sorta. It’s not so much passion as it is a mutual willingness to momentarily detach themselves from their own self-absorption.

Monsters wants to be the African Queen of kaiju films, but the uninvolving characters and improvised dialogue are an ocean away from Bogart and Hepburn’s romantic banter. It’s a movie that tells you what is happening, as when the photographer declares “the vibe just changed.” (People also ask a lot of questions of the “what’s that?” or “why are they carrying guns?” variety, as if they have forgotten about being surrounded by colossal calamari.)

This would be less damaging if there was more happening on the alien invader front, but the eponymous critters make only occasional, brief appearances. I’ll accept the premise that this was a conscious directorial choice rather than a budgetary mandate, but if so, writer/director Gareth Edwards should’ve spent more time making the humans worth caring about.

The roguish Andrew flirts with the boss’ daughter, but spends the night with a prostitute who steals most of his belongings. Oddly enough, Samantha doesn’t seem all that upset that her idiotic escort lost their passports. This may be because she’s not all that eager to get home to her fiancée, or it just may be that she’s bored. It’s hard to tell. We never find out why she went to Mexico in the first place, or why she spends the movie sporting a bandaged arm. Whatever her motivations, she’s far too willing to risk crossing an alien-overrun land rather than, say, sitting around the U.S. embassy until Daddy Warbucks charters a plane. Monsters or no monsters, are we really expected to believe that the world won’t help a rich, white girl?

Monsters comes with a heaping helping of metaphor. You see, it’s really about the U.S. response to illegal immigration, with glowing space squid filling in for undocumented domestics. And while I’m far from immune to the charms of sledgehammer allegory–I was a big fan of V, after all–this is the sort of movie in which people gaze out at a 100-meter-high concrete border wall and say “It’s different looking at America from the outside.” Point delivered. (Thwack!) And I’m not sure that I buy into the suggestion that the U.S. military are the true antagonists here when we’re shown the extent of the otherworldly infestation. It’s hard to root for an invasive species, especially when the Asian carp in question can topple buildings.

It’s not that I went into Monsters unprepared. I knew that the creatures stayed mostly in the background. I’m fine with menaces that are suggested rather than seen. And I don’t necessarily have a problem with improvised dialogue. I found The Blair Witch Project chilling (the first time, anyway) because its filmmakers suffused their story with a dread of the unknown. In Monsters, we start out with a fairly complete understanding of the aliens’ nature and motivations. Our protragonists knowingly and needlessly put themselves in harm’s way. And yet–aside from the final couple of minutes–there’s no sense of imminent threat. It’s not the lack of monsters that defuses Monsters, it’s the lack of tension.

Then there’s the non-ending. Okay, that’s not completely true: there is sort of a conclusion, if you know where to look for it. But, like M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable, it seems less of an ambiguity than a case of the movie stopping just when the interesting part is about to happen.

I don’t want to come down too harshly on Monsters. I respect its do-it-yourself nature. The location shooting is beautiful. And I appreciate its attempt to take a more thoughtful approach to giant monster tropes. But I will say that I’m now kinda worried that Gareth Edwards has been given the keys to the forthcoming American Godzilla reboot. As a filmmaker’s calling card, Monsters achieves impressive results on a micro-budget, but as a romantic thriller, it falls flatter than Tokyo after a rampage.

*Bonus question: why are there so many crashed planes littering the zone? The aliens don’t appear to jump, fly or shoot death rays. Jet fighter vs. land squid would, at first glance, seem an unfair fight.

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