Monsters – 2010 – dir. Gareth Edwards
Monsters is the story of Sam (Whitney Able), the daughter of the wealthy man who has pressed Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photographer, into escorting her back to the United States from Mexico. This Mexico, it needs to be said, is a Mexico whose northern half is “the Infected Zone,” where giant aliens have roamed since they came to Earth six years ago.
In story, Monsters feels very similar to Cloverfield: In both, the protagonists must make progress through alien-infested areas. (In the latter, Manhattan is invaded by much more hostile and destructive creatures.) And both films make a point of limiting our information only to what the characters know, or even less. Cloverfield’s protagonists see the first alien attack as it happens and aren’t told much of anything over the course of the story; Monsters is set in a world where, despite six years of cohabitation, people don’t even seem to know how these things reproduce, or much of anything else, and the effect is the same as if they had just arrived.
This lack of information has two effects. First, it comes across as a winking tease from the filmmakers, who are withholding the clear exposition we normally get in a Hollywood film, as if they are trying to freshen up a worn genre. Second, by freeing up time that would otherwise go to lengthy explanations and plot developments, the story is more focused on the emotional arc of the characters. And by sharing the confusion — we know just as little as they do — our identification with them is intensified.
Though the movies are similar, Monsters has a few advantages in a side-by-side comparison. For one, it looks better; Cloverfield, whatever camera it was actually shot on, was made to look like footage actually filmed by witnesses of the attack using consumer electronics. Monsters doesn’t bother with this conceit, and its bold colors and sharp detail look terrific. (Reportedly made for less than $500,000 by just a handful of people, the film’s very production shows just how much is possible with current film technology.)
Another point in favor of Monsters is that its characters are more plausible because they are more troubled. We learn at the outset that Sam is engaged, so we are already aware that any romance between the two protagonists is fraught, while Andrew has his own baggage. He’s not particularly charming or heroic, and that makes him more compelling than the idealist romantic of Cloverfield, who ends up dying for an infatuation about as profound as any in the grand style of hormone-driven teenagers.
The biggest problem with Cloverfield, perhaps, is that it never even hints at any broader themes. This is where Monsters is much more akin to District 9, whose shrimp-like extraterrestrials are treated like an oppressed ethnic group. The film is a broad swipe at apartheid, and its message, while true, is trite: We shouldn’t treat anyone as a second-class citizen, even if they are slimy, eat cat food, and come from a faraway planet.
Though Monsters has a subtext of social issues, it isn’t really in the creatures, which aren’t much more than a misunderstood natural force — they might as well be giant mutant squids for all their political relevance. Their relationship to humans is more a metaphor for our own disinterested ignorance of the environment than it is for our treatment of minorities.
That issue of white, wealthy privilege is dealt with more literally, as Andrew and Sam find themselves forced to take a dangerous land route straight through “the Infected Zone” to reach the United States, a route that is only what every regular Mexican peasant would have to subject themselves to. Another poignant moment with overtones of class and race issues comes when Andrew explains that he can make $50,000 for a photograph of a child who has been killed. The films asks (and pretty much answers) whether this is exploitative, but it’s a far more subtle point than the outright degradation of the aliens in District 9.
Actually, the issue of exploitation had a strange parallel in the film production itself. Writer, director and cinematographer Gareth Edwards, in an interview with KCRW’s “The Business,” mentioned that he was cautious about going to Galveston, Texas, to use the hurricane-ravaged region as a stand-in for an alien disaster area, for fear of being insensitive. Ultimately, however, he did, which is a bit ironic, given the choices of the characters in the movie when confronted with a similar question. Scoot McNairy, a native Texan, recalled in a Creative Screenwriting Magazine podcast interview that he would sometimes act as Edwards’ conscience, stopping him from filming too close to people who were sorting through what was left of their own homes.
In any event, the film manages to suggest these questions of exploitation and privilege without being as ham-fisted as District 9. And the comparison may not even be apt, since, instead of working as direct proxies for marginalized groups, the aliens here work better as a metaphor for the characters’ emotional lives (mysterious but beautiful) or for nature’s wonder (dangerous but beautiful). Or maybe something else entirely, since the eponymous monsters of this movie are so little seen that the title might even be referring to the protagonists.
Cloverfield created a bit of intrigue as a title, too, since the name was never explained or even referred to, but that wound up being just a cute trick. Whether the name of Monsters refers to the aliens or the people or the government is not as important as the fact that it bothers to create that question in the first place. Making intriguing connections is what good filmmaking is about, even when they don’t lead anywhere in particular.