BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A photojournalist must escort his boss’s daughter through the Central American jungle, which, six years after a space probe crashed, has become a No Man’s Land of alien flora and fauna.
PROS: Low key, understated use of effects; telling details of how alien invasion has been incorporated into everyday life; smart, strong script and direction from Gareth Edwards; strong, sympathetic performances from leads Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy.
CONS: One or two minor plot holes that don’t quite make sense; a bit of alien biology that probably could have been explained a little better.
Two scenes early in the sublime Monsters show that writer-director Gareth Edwards is, with his first feature, not only a master cinematic craftsman but one also schooled in showing his audience his world rather than explaining it. As photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) await transport to a ferry that will take them away from the Central American Infected Zone (where, six years before, a satellite carrying alien microbes crashed, causing new life forms to appear) and back to America, they stay overnight in the home of a Hispanic family. As they talk to the mother and her children, a television plays in the background, featuring an animated children’s program that presumably explains the giant squidlike aliens. Another occurs when Kaulder and Wynden pass a mural depicting the aliens fighting jets and tanks. Both sequences are over very quickly, but they tell the audience nearly everything about the world Edwards has created.
Why are Kaulder and Wynden so near the alien Infected Zone? Kaulder is a photojournalist documenting the effects of the six-year invasion, but he takes little joy in it, acknowledging to Wynden that there is no money to be made from pictures that do not display the matter-of-fact misery of the lives of those living near the Zone. Wynden was staying at a hotel that was damaged when United States jets attacked and killed an alien; Kaulder has been hired by her father (his boss) to make sure she gets back to the United States. Both, seemingly, have reason to return; Kaulder has a son from a failed relationship, and because he is in Mexico he cannot be with him on his birthday. Wynden is engaged, but seems ambivalent about the prospect of marriage. Refreshingly, they are neither are damaged cynics nor idealized if neurotic Mary Sues but actual people simply trying to figure things out.
They make it to a coastal town where they can catch the last ferry out of Mexico. They pay $5,000 for a ticket, but her passport is stolen, facing them with no other choice but to travel through the Infected Zone to the walled border separating Mexico from the United States. (Though the setup is rife with the potential for smothering its audience with contemporary allegory, Edwards wisely barely touches on it.)
Like a Russian nesting doll, allusions layer the journey Kaulder and Wynden take. The most obvious, of course, are Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, as they must journey up a river and through an alien forest to reach their destination, but as the movie progresses Edwards unpacks more layers. The Infected Zone, a part of earth transformed by alien life, echoes the Strugatsky brothers’s Roadside Picnic (and Andrei Tarkovsky’s adaptation Stalker). The aliens themselves resemble a strange hybrid of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu and John Wyndham’s Triffids, and our inability to communicate with them seems reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris. Ruined buildings and rusted fighter jets suggest both J.G. Ballard’s disaster novels and the works of Lucius Shepard, notably “Salvador” and Life During Wartime. And yet none of it is derivative. Edwards incorporates everything into a work that is uniquely his own, telling the story of two people in a world in which they, like almost everybody else, cannot control but must merely exist.
Edwards also refuses to bow to standard genre movie tropes. Despite comparisons to last year’s District 9 and 2007’s Cloverfield, Monsters is not a horror movie, and shares with both pictures only a cinema vérité style that suits the tale being told. While the movie opens with a team of soldiers fighting one of the aliens (which concludes with a smart bomb view of the creature), and while humans do find themselves in battle with the aliens on at least one occasion (and should I say how it works out for the home species?), it’s not an alien invasion story along the lines of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds (on the high end of the spectrum) or Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day (on the low). It is, like the quieter moments of Robert Silverberg’s The Alien Years, more about how humans cope and adapt to the realities of extraterrestrial life among us than the obviously failed strategies to rid the planet of them.
This is especially true of the movie’s climax, when Kaulder and Wynden have crossed the border and await American troops at an abandoned gas station. An approaching lightning storm illuminates two hulking aliens, their bodies glowing with an eerie red and gold luminescence (the first time we learn their bodies glow, though why is never explained), as they near the nearly deserted structure. What could have been an extended fight scene, rife with explosions and screaming, turns out to be something almost poetic, suggesting that the Monsters, like us, are ultimately seeking the same thing.