Monsters is an unexpected little SF movie that deserves more attention than it's received. However, there's one aspect of it that might explain why some people have a problem with it. I'll get to that shortly.
Monsters (That title alone probably doomed the movie, with its generic sound and symbolic weight) has been described as a low budget District 9. This isn't entirely wrong, but it misses the point. Monsters is a road picture, a Heart of Darkness journey staring a clueless American tourist, Samantha, and a ne'er-do-well photojournalist, Andrew.
The premise of Monsters is simple. A probe sent out to look for organic life in the solar system came back crashed in Mexico some time before the movie begins. The American border is closed and half of Mexico is a virtual no man's land as alien organisms take over the landscape in a slow, strange Ballardian transformation. Samantha is the daughter of a media magnate who twists Andrew's arm to see his daughter to one of the entry points still open along the border. Of course things go wrong and they never make it, so they have to go overland through the infected zone.
Here is where the movie breaks down for some people. The journey is simply that. A long journey over unknown land and dangerous waters and the utter displacement you can feel along the way. There's not much resembling a plot here. It's Antonioni science fiction. Instead of hard SF what we see are glimpses of moments in the characters lives and relationships and their interactions with the locals they meet along the way. If you're looking for action-packed James Cameron battle scenes you'll be extremely disappointed.
Writer/director Gareth Edwards mostly keeps his aliens in the background. You hear them bellowing across the rainforest. You catch glimpses of them behind billboards and buildings when they wander into a town and are attacked by an occupation army. When the aliens do appear the encounters are brief, shifting between wonder and fast and utter brutality. In one scene we watch as down the river tentacles emerge and drag the wreckage of a jet fighter underwater. It's a quiet sequence like something out of a Victorian ghost story. However, when a nighttime convoy encounters one the enormous cephalopod creatures it's pure horror movie carnage—exactly the kind of thing I'm sure most audiences wanted but seldom received.
The real problem people seem to have with the movie is the shape of the overland journey. We watch Samantha and Andrew pay off local smugglers to take them north. Along the way they're passed from smuggler to another. Neither of our protagonists has any clue who these people are or where they're going as they move farther and farther away from civilization with locals who probably don't give a damn about a couple of, to them, rich gringo assholes. Samantha and Andrew are utterly lost, at mercy of strangers and vicious aliens. Many people seem to find this part of the journey unbelievable. Why would Samantha and Andrew follow grungy strangers down a river to meet other more mysterious and heavily armed strangers? As someone who's traveled in Central America and other countries in the developing world I can tell you that when you get onto the back roads trusting strangers and following them into towns that aren't on any maps, full of locals who stare at you they whole time you're there is exactly what you do. The alternative is to stand around forever at a dusty crossroad waiting for Godot in the form of a phantom American-friendly air-conditioned bus that will never come.
Monsters isn't a perfect film. There are moments where the dialog about how the wall America has thrown up along the border has imprisoned itself feels a little stilted and obvious. But the good moments outweigh the bad and the final encounter with the aliens is both as frightening and strangely beautiful as any scene of its type in any movie I can remember.
Monsters represents a kind of movie making where the SF elements are at the service of a simple human story. But the SF isn't tacked onto the film. It's at the heart of, another part of the strange journey Samantha and Andrew have to make to find their way home.[image error]
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