Hype has it that Monsters is this year’s District 9. Well, forget about that comparison. Alien monsters aside, there’s not much in common between the two movies. District 9 had allegorical pretensions that I found obvious and tedious, but at least there was a bit of thought invested in it – and the aliens were impressively original. Don’t expect any such saving graces outta Monsters.
The movie’s set in Mexico, the time indeterminate – not too distant future, probably. Six years after a NASA space probe crashes over Mexico with its cargo of alien life samples, the place is under siege on two fronts: from some beasties that have taken to their new earthly habitat and are advancing towards the American border, and from the American airforce that is doing what they do best – bombing the hell outta the whole damned country in the hope of wiping out the perceived threat. In keeping with historical precedents, this strategy ain’t working.
Enter the two protagonists, photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) who is on assignment in Mexico, and his boss’s daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able). With the aliens a looming threat, Big Daddy charges Kaulder with the task of escorting his daughter safely back home. The only escape route is along the river by privately chartered boat, then overland through creature-infested jungle wilderness to the American border. What? Isn’t Mexico sorta sparsely vegetated in the north? Ah – but what’s a sci-fi flick without a few gaping plot holes?
Naturally, Kaulder has the hots for Samantha. She rejects his advances after a drunken night out, cos, well, she’s engaged and a good girl, and he’s an irresponsible loner driven by who-knows-what demons. Still, old Kaulder can’t be blamed for having a crack – she’s a bit of a silly bitch from a privileged background taking time out before heading back home to marry some bloke Daddy approves of, but she’s easy on the eyes and wears short shorts that show off her shapely legs most beguilingly. And they are the only Americans left in ‘The Infected Zone’ (the region occupied by the aliens). That’s romantic, innit? And there’s no better aphrodisiac than extreme danger and an enhanced awareness of your own mortality…
We don’t get to see the aliens until three-quarters of the way through the movie. Until then, they exist only as an ominous presence against an apocalyptic backdrop of deserted towns, buildings reduced to rubble, and crashed US airforce planes. Nice. Imagined threat is always creepier than the real thang.
The set-up is intriguing and the tension well-maintained – until the aliens break cover and attack. The expectations that have been built up around the creatures come to nothing. They are merely gigantic octopus-like beasties with electrified tentacles, and a roar like an agitated elephant. Standard sci fi outer space critters, then, more or less. And you can’t help but wonder how these oversized clumsily moving alien cephalopods have kept the US airforce at bay, while somehow bringing down half their planes.
From the point at which the creepies make their appearance, things unravel fast. It becomes all too apparent that the story has run out of legs. There’s a ridiculous scene in which Kaulder and Samantha climb to the top of a Mayan temple ruin from where they can see the massive wall the Americans have constructed at the border in an effort to keep the aliens out. (Aren’t all the Mayan relics in the south of Mexico?). Then follows some of the hokiest dialogue I’ve encountered for years. It’s so embarrassing, you can’t help but feel sorry for the actors – and there’s a sense that they, too, are struggling not to cringe. I can’t recall the exact lines, but this is the gist of it:
“America looks different from the outside, doesn’t it? All those people comfortable in their cosy suburban lives. And tomorrow, we’ll be there too, and all this will seem so far away…” Samantha then drops the big clanger in wistful tones: “I don’t wanna go home.” (!!). Life as unwashed refugees at risk of annihilation in “The Infected Zone” is suddenly paradisical, apparently.
Of course, she’s fallen for Kaulder (spoiler alert unnecessary – it’s entirely predictable). And boy, does the sentiment kick in as they head for home. The aliens redeem themselves in a faintly touching demonstration that they are people too, then we return to the love story that’s been the true focal point all along. The mawkish and, frankly, ludicrous final scene is a formulaic and ignominious end for a film that promised so much more in its buildup.
OK, Monsters is super-low-budget, made for an unbelievable $15,000, purportedly – see interview with director Gareth Edwards here. That in itself is an incredible achievement. However, the movie must be assessed on merit. It is under-investment of thought, not finances, that is the problematic issue here.
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