Throwback Thursday: Monsters (2010)

In case it isn’t obvious from my other reviews, my personal home-video collection, my Twitter feed, my browser history, or nearly everything else in my life, I’m a bit of a huge nerd. And while I’ve long appreciated a good horror flick, sometimes a man wants his movies chock-full of some good old-fashioned futuristic aliens. And sometimes that man is lazy and needs the title of a move to perfectly describe the subject matter. That’s where 2010’s ‘Monsters’ comes in.

Six years after a NASA deep-space probe crash-landed in Mexico with, shall we say, unexpected cargo, aliens still inhabit a quarantined zone along the US-Mexico border. Andrew Kaulder, an American photojournalist in Mexico to document the current state of the invasion, is tasked by his boss to escort the boss’ daughter, Samantha, back into the US. Andrew and Samantha learn that their opportunity to escape expires soon; air and sea travel is scheduled to be cut off for at least six months. Faced with the prospect of being stuck in the quarantine zone long-term, the pair resolve to travel across the border on foot, sneaking through jungles and forests by day to avoid being attacked by the aliens.

I was impressed that the story takes place long enough after an alien invasion that the alien presence is taken as commonplace. In a way, it feels like this story picks up where most other monster movies end. Unfortunately, the main story is made to be a travelogue where the main characters are already foreigners, so it’s not as obvious to them (or to us) how the alien invasion has been integrated into the locals’ usual routine. It’s a missed opportunity to really deconstruct the alien-invasion genre. What we get instead is a grim tour through devastated cities and towns with only two individuals there to provide context. It’s large-scale destruction seen in a small-scale perspective, and while the characters certainly feel isolated, nothing about their story is unique to the alien situation – they could just as easily be escaping a hurricane or a pandemic disease. On their own, none of these problems is enough to derail my enjoyment of the movie, but the sum total of the missed opportunities and tepid social commentary left me wanting more from the filmmakers rather than more of the story.

I never really got the sense that the filmmakers wanted or needed to explain the larger context of the alien invasion. In a way, that attitude fits well with the small scale of the story; since the characters don’t seem overly bothered with the aliens’ origins, we the audience don’t feel cheated out of an explanation, it’s just not in the movie’s scope. Overall, the story moves surprisingly slowly – for a movie called ‘Monsters,’ you don’t really see much of the titular creatures until more than an hour in. It’s worth it to stay to the end, but be advised that the movie goes at its own pace and your questions will in all likelihood be answered, if somewhat later than you would expect. The characters have some good sub-textual depth, and the actors (real-life spouses Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able) have convincing chemistry together. Most of the minor characters are genuine local extras who were pulled into filming scenes with the actors, and the largely improvised dialogue gives the film’s tenser scenes a real sense of urgency and authenticity.

The news reports that show up throughout the movie seem to have come directly from the Convenient Exposition Department: it is six years after the initial invasion, yet the news stories treat every aspect of life with the creatures as a high-urgency matter. Worse, there’s no new information for the audience to gather from these reports, so all they do is undercut the movie’s central conceit that life goes on after the apocalypse. The traveling sequences aren’t often used well, and too often they feel like filler to pad the movie’s run time. Overall, this is an hour-long story told in 90 minutes, and the reveals we get about the alien invasion along the way aren’t enough to justify the many lulls we’re forced to endure before the payoff at the end.

The movie mercifully avoids the gimmick of presenting itself as “found footage,” but the cinematography is very rough-and-tumble, giving the audience an opportunity to feel present at every moment of the pair’s journey. The visual effects aren’t anything special, as most of the effects look like they were done by one man using consumer-grade software. In fact, that’s exactly what happened, and I’m more inclined to view the effects charitably considering both the impressiveness of the feat and how much worse the visuals could have turned out.

Overall, ‘Monsters’ does its best to overcome its low-budget status, but unfortunately, the film can’t fully live up to its vast potential. Still, writer/director/effects man/object of my jealousy Gareth Edwards made enough of an impression in the industry with this, his first film, to earn the reins to the ‘Godzilla’ remake and the directing opportunity to the fabulous ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.’  Edwards has now chosen to focus on smaller-scale productions, and if his approach to forthcoming projects is as original and daring as ‘Monsters’ was, I’ll definitely make the time to see it.