Allegories don’t come much more leaden than Monsters, a transparent fusion of Cloverfield and District 9 that posits its alien-invasion tale as a parable about illegal immigration. The story of a photographer (Scoot McNairy) attempting to transport his boss’s daughter (Whitney Able) through an Infected Zone located between Mexico and America that’s overrun with alien life forms, Gareth Edwards’s sci-fi indie doesn’t have an original bone in its body, nor a subtle thought in its head. From a faux-verité aesthetic modeled after the aforementioned two aliens-among-us hits, to stenciled gas-mask warning signs borrowed from countless dystopian sagas, to giant ambulatory squid-like extraterrestrials straight out of The Mist‘s finale, there’s absolutely nothing here that hasn’t been seen before. That dearth of novelty extends to its Sleep Dealer-esque contempo concerns, which emerge as it becomes clear that big bad militaristic America has walled off Mexico to keep out the unwanted creatures (symbolic stand-ins for Mexicans, naturally), and engages these foreign entities with hostility rather than the compassion that would allow the Yanks to see that these visitors might just want to make peace, not war.
If that sort of pat, loaded commentary weren’t enough to make one retch into the nearest bucket, Edwards makes sure that his viewpoint is articulated outright. Addressing the giant border wall between the two countries, Able’s blonde muses, “It’s like we’re imprisoning ourselves,” an eye-roller that’s complemented later on when McNairy’s snapshooter, staring at said partition, says, “It’s different looking at America from the outside.” In light of Monsters‘s simplistic critique (one aided by characterizations that posit Mexicans as altruistic people in touch with nature, and Americans as unseen wielders of callous war machines), the film’s incessant creature-teasing proves only a mild annoyance. Edwards’s decision to deliver more suggestive scary noises and barely glimpsed sights of the aliens rather than all-out mayhem (a choice likely due in part to budgetary concerns) fails to generate much in the way of tension, what with it clear that the director has no intention of putting his two protagonists in any serious danger. More problematic still, though, is that it shifts the dramatic focus to his main characters, who—despite some dawning, barely suppressed feelings for each other—share all the chemistry of a wet match on cardboard.
Edwards’s vistas of Mexican countryside desolation, in which boats are perched in trees and flocks of birds endlessly circle bombed-out high-rises, effectively mirror the emotional turmoil of Able and McNairy’s travelers, both of whom are endeavoring to return home to unhappily complicated lives—and, in McNairy’s case, grapple with the moral implications of his supposedly exploitative war-photography career. Too often, however, Monsters succumbs to merely romanticizing Latin American destitution in an attempt to ram home its pedantic points about America’s heartless treatment of its southern neighbors. Like District 9, Edwards’s film avoids nuanced analysis because it would thoroughly muck up the sci-fi conceit at play, a situation that thus negates any mature interest in the issues at hand. That’s finally a near-fatal problem for the proceedings, given that its superficial action mainly involves two dullards roaming Mexican jungles and, later on, Texas suburbs, all the while avoiding contact with intergalactic beings that rarely appear and, in those rare instances when they rear their glowing heads, do little more than accost nameless peripheral figures, simply walk on by, or—spoiler!—make tentacle-mingling love to each other. Because, you know, they’re just gentle misunderstood creatures, and we’re the real monsters.