Monsters begins rather unpromisingly with an army patrol driving around in the middle of the night. The soldiers are of the typically overzealous, macho sort, with one even going so far as to hum “Ride of the Valkyries” in order to emphasize a point we’d already grasped. A reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s iconic, hallucinatory war film Apocalypse Now, of course, but would a contemporary solider in his 20s know the film, particularly right down to specific music cues? Anyway, the soldiers are descended upon by a giant creature that looks like a cross between an octopus and a jellyfish, and the attack is soon disrupted by a smash cut to the title.
The entire opening has, of course, been filmed from the grainy, black-and-white camera-armed vantage point of one of the now deceased—and so you brace yourself for yet another horror movie that structurally contorts itself to justify various characters holding a camera the entire time. But the film mercifully sheds that gimmick after the title, when it’s revealed that the monster attack occurred in Mexico, and opening text has already told us that the creatures are aliens who’ve resided in a quarantined zone along the U.S./Mexico border for the last six years. This attack has understandably thrown travel—which has been designed to work around the occasional alien skirmish (metaphor alert)—temporarily for a loop, which brings the two unlikely protagonists together. Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is an American photographer looking to cash in with a juicy film of a living alien (we’re told such pics can go for 50 grand) and Samantha (Whitney Able) is the pretty, entitled daughter of Andrew’s wealthy media-magnet employer. Andrew is talked into ensuring Samantha’s return to America against his reservations, while Samantha works through her doubts to returning to obviously problematic situations with both her father and fiancée.
These early scenes of exposition—set primarily in a train station, with the busy, chaotic streets of Mexico as the backdrop—have a jumpy urgency. For a few minutes, you wonder—given the lead characters’ clashing backgrounds—if Monsters is going to be variation of the classic screwball comedy where two mismatched leads, separated by class and ambition, fall in love while facing the various travails that come with the traditional movie road trip. The potential of crossing a genre that’s normally meant as comfort food with a modern—usually political—strain of horror film is promising, and you await the strange, discombobulating contrast that might come from uniting two seemingly unlikely bedfellows. Unfortunately, the movie isn’t quite that original. Writer-director Gareth Edwards takes his cue more from war-torn coming-of-age road trip films—like The Motorcycle Diaries and Y Tu Mamá También—in which self-absorbed characters acquire a little humility and perspective in the face of pure, simple folk who’re more directly in touch with the Earth than us petty, squabbling Americans.
The aliens, unsurprisingly, are a metaphor for immigrants and terrorists meant to underline America’s greed, wealth, and indifference to other cultures—and the film is as crushingly blunt as the premise implies. The film’s naiveté is often tedious yet honest and apropos to a scenario that follows the, yes, obvious but rude awakening of a couple of young adults who think they’ve seen more than they probably have. Monsters might have been less effective if it were more artfully written, as it would have played as as just another semi-competent, self-righteous indie exploring the usual injustices inflicted by the so-called land of the free. Edwards is clearly gifted: He captures the Central American landscape’s disquieting mixture of the beautiful and the poverty-ravaged, and his treatment of the surrounding non-actor locals is refreshingly loose and uncomplicated by the thematic grandstanding that he ultimately saves for his leads.
The ending is indicative of everything that’s wrong and right about Monsters. In a fashion common to the alien-symbolism movie, Andrew and Samantha discover that the aliens want to make love, not war, and that beneath their fearsome exterior lays unexpected vulnerability. The film’s last line—“I don’t wanna leave”—is simplistic to the point of being offensive, as it plays to the typical unthreatened white’s romanticizing (and accidental condescension) of the poor as a contrast to everything whites may hate about themselves. Of course, Andrew and Samantha don’t want to leave, their tour of Central America was a little hairy, but they were never threatened with the day-to-day permanence of someone who struggles for survival their entire lives. The trip exposes Andrew and Samantha to realities that ultimately serve to reaffirm their typical American stereotypes of outside lands. That said, this romanticism—while not presented with any degree of perspective by a filmmaker who’s roughly the same age as his characters—is still truthful of many confused adults who’re basically only half a step beyond childhood. Gareth got some of his turmoil on the screen, and that takes talent; here’s hoping he grows up enough to actually wrestle with it.
Visually, Monsters is a fairly typical example of the low-budget horror movie that features grainy, handheld camera work. The detail is impressive to the point of calling out some of the film's digital effects, which truthfully still aren't bad considering the resources. The vividness of the Central American landscapes are worth the compromised effects, however, as you can make out the texture of the leaves, the washed-out grainy browns of the dirt, as well as the minute details such as the candlelit festivals or the lived-in furniture in the local homes. The surround sound is nearly as subtle, particularly in the quieter outdoor passages that are meant to convey the remoteness of the habitats.
The audio commentary by Gareth Edwards and the two leads is breezy and entertaining, as you can sense the enthusiasm and pride of people recently new to the business. The trio discusses the improvisatory nature of developing the scenes, as well as the day-to-day on-location guerilla tactics that no doubt contributed to the authenticity that saves the film. The anecdotal nature of the commentary reaffirms what you suspected already: that Monsters was a young persons' travelogue film disguised as a sci-fi horror movie. The deleted and extended scenes are riffs and variations of scenes that already appear in the film, and they were trimmed or discarded mostly for reasons that are obvious. The HDNet making-of featurette is a typical advertisement with a few shallow cast testimonials.
A fine presentation of an absurd yet promising horror debut.