Let It (Them) Be…

You’d be forgiven for thinking that a movie called Monsters would feature, well, numerous monstrous characters, creatures, or beings terrorizing their human counterparts. If that’s what you like in your monster movies, then Gareth EdwardsMonsters might not be the film for you. However, if you like more intimate, suspenseful films that do not sacrifice emotion as soon as a monster emerges on screen, then this is the film for you.

Monsters is closely related to Neill Blomkamp’s District 9, in terms of their production, aesthetics, and themes. In Edwards’ film, set in the not-too-distant future, we have discovered the possibility of extra-terrestrial life in our solar system. NASA sends out an expedition to gather samples of this possible life and upon its return, the space shuttle crashes over Mexico. The samples inevitably infect the area surrounding the crash and evolve into giant alien beings. The beings occupy a wide swath of northern Mexico that becomes known as the “Infected Zone.” Through televised news coverage, we see military forces “at war” with “monsters” that look like a giant squid/giraffe hybrid.

The film centers on two Americans living in Mexico, Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a journalist, and Samantha (Whitney Able), the daughter of a wealthy American publisher. Andrew has been charged with the task of escorting Samantha to the coast so that she can take a ferry back to the United States. Through a series of mishaps, Samantha misses out on the ferry option and the two are forced to take an overland journey through the Infected Zone. Armed “coyotes” shepherd them through the zone, but as they, and we, soon see, the reality of its infection may not be as terrifying as the press and rumors make it out to be. When (not necessarily a spoiler here) the two return to the United States, they also see that, despite its (somewhat hilarious) best efforts, the United States has not gone unchanged either. The film’s ending is simultaneously awe-inspiring and somewhat shocking, so I’ll save it for those of you who might actually want to watch it.

A hole in a new wonder of the world?

Like District 9, Monsters is impossible to view without thinking about issues of immigration and war. In fact, some viewers might feel that Edwards telegraphs his messages too explicitly. The United States has built a disturbingly large wall to keep out the aliens…and not just the 50-foot tentacled kind either. The film more-than-subtly attacks the notion that such measures are effective border controls. One of the “coyotes” mentions in passing that it seems like the monsters would pretty much keep to themselves if left alone. Of course, learning how to live with towering 50-feet giants is much more difficult than just bombing them to oblivion…but it might be cheaper.

The aforementioned television coverage of attacks on…not necessarily battles with…the monsters is reminiscent of footage of the first Gulf War. The film gives us glimpses of the monsters’ corpses, so we do know that the attacks “work.” However, the extent of the infection in the forests of Mexico reveals that nothing short of clear-cutting an indeterminable amount of land would stem the infection. At the same time, other critics have noted that Monsters also addresses the wars in which the United States currently finds itself as planes blindly bomb or fumigate the Infected Zone to kill monsters that may or may not be there. On the other hand, at least the military forces in Monsters can clearly see the “enemy” when it emerges.

A monster tease...

These themes or messages might sound trite and would most likely come across as such if Edwards’ film wasn’t so well executed. Much of the news that surrounded the film’s release centered on the extremely low production budget ($500,000) with which Edwards worked. Like Blomkamp, Edwards proves that he knows how to stretch a production dollar. Aside from the two lead actors, Edwards employed locals from the locations in which he shot, and, to a supporting actor, they all perform admirably. The only drawback to any of the film’s performances is the somewhat stilted dialogue with which the actors have to work. Roger Ebert speculates that Edwards shot some of his footage in post-Katrina areas, employing images of washed up cars and boats and half-destroyed homes. While this might border on the exploitative, it lends an aura of believability to the film that most other low-budget features lack. The cinematography is both gritty and beautiful, as is the infected zone, and proves that filmmakers do not have to sacrifice quality visuals on the altar of digital filmmaking.

Monsters is a suspenseful film that retains its effectiveness by downplaying the gotcha moments that so often plague films of this genre. It certainly proves that Edwards is a director worth paying attention to. Hopefully that attention, and its accompanying production dollars, won’t rob him of his talent.

Monsters (93 mins.) is rated R for language and is available on DVD and streaming on Netflix.