Monsters (2010) may at first seem belied by its title. This is about as far from a Kaiju Eiga as it’s possible to get, and – as much as I enjoy inane city-stompers, all of these differences render this a superb piece of filmmaking. Here we have an understated, human-centred story where the trauma comes at least as much from human interactions as it does from the (almost peripheral) extra-terrestrials.
Like so many of the best science-fiction premises, Monsters provides a fantasy world which is nightmarish because it’s bizarre, and nightmarish because it’s recognisable. After sending a probe into our Solar System to try to locate alien life, NASA’s probe broke up upon re-entering the atmosphere, and was lost somewhere over Central America. Shortly afterwards, however, alien life began appearing in the region – leading to part of Mexico being partitioned off as an ‘Infected Zone’, and to the US and Mexican military struggling to eradicate the creatures.
Journalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is in the San Jose, Mexico area trying for the photojournalism scoop of the decade – capturing decent images of the strange, cephalopodic creatures threatening the region. He receives a message from his boss telling him that the boss’s daughter, Sam (Whitney Able) is also currently in San Jose, injured, and asks Kaulder to help get Sam back to the safety of the US. Kaulder reluctantly agrees.
However, after a night’s partying on the day before they’re due to leave, Kaulder is robbed and, with neither American passports nor enough cash to pay the extortionist at the ferry office, the pair have no choice but to travel across the Infected Zone back to America. Alongside their guard of locals (paid for by Sam exchanging her engagement ring) and under extreme duress, the relationship between the pair develops. This is done simply, believably (the pair are a married couple in real life) and allows the audience to build up an understanding of each person’s back-story. Every detail of their characters doesn’t need to be spelled out in aching cliche. It feels organic, and here are two people in which you really feel you have something invested. It just goes to show can be done with indie cinema, budget or no budget. Most of the other actors in this film are non-professionals too, which adds to the feel of fluidity here.
Lots of things struck me about this film: I gather that lots of people have seen it as a commentary on immigration policy, which I have to say didn’t enter my head for one second, but I did find myself seeing it as an exploration of human error. The best-known tagline for this film is ‘Now It’s Our Turn to Adapt’; well, although some people affected by this situation have adapted their behaviour (from the profiteering ferry office guy, to the families who now know they oughtn’t travel by night) it’s the inability of the military to respond to or even research the entities sensibly which is costing thousands of lives. The group of Mexicans escorting Sam and Kaulder know more about the extra-terrestrials than the guys in bombers. They appreciate that it is being attacked which causes the creatures to retaliate, and they understand how the creatures reproduce. Erecting an (ineffective) wall between the Infected Zone and America, organising military strikes – this is the lion’s share of the problem here. We learn gradually that the gas masks people are instructed to carry are not to do with anything the creatures do – it’s because of chemical warfare.
This is brought home simply by the amount of focus on children. Throughout Monsters, children are present and frequently looking right at the audience, either in person, or through the memorial photos we are shown. It’s not a laboured point and fits in with the feel of the film – there’s no ‘Think of the Children!’ here – but it’s a neat way to illustrate how the choices of the few affect the helpless. To paraphrase Kaulder, at his most cynical, as he defends his profession as a photographer of the tragic – “You know how much I’d get paid for a photograph of a child that’s been killed by one of these creatures? Thousands of dollars. You know what I’d get paid for a photo of a happy, living child? Nothing.” Those who benefit by tragedy – be they distant consumers, or immediate neighbours – are often the least able to humanise the victims of tragedy. Monsters keeps reiterating the importance of the people at the heart of this, or any tragic situation.
Haunting and clever, Monsters is no romp and no end-of-the-world epic. Instead it’s a film about consequences. An aural clue towards the end of this film only reinforces the ambiguity and poignancy which makes this one of my stand-out films of the past ten years. See it.