At its core, Monsters is a film about the wreckage of conflict. Whether it be by the hand (or tentacle, rather) of an alien race, by nuclear decimation, warring or poverty, civilisation is in a constant state of minor reclamation by the landscape. Whenever a part of our world falls down, nature is there to smooth it over, or indeed it is nature that destroys it. Monsters is a disaster film set in the retrospective. Its exposition is neat: we are in a post-alien world, as colossal iridescent cephalopods roam and ravage the US/New Mexico border. The world goes on living just the same outside a demarcated ‘infected zone’ (somewhat unimaginative titling). Nearby the zone vast memorials and vigils are maintained to commemorate victims of the Creatures, which are not malicious, just wildly destructive. Photojournalist Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and disenfranchised tourist/marriage escapee Sam (Whitney Able) try to make it home through the zone just as the area it encloses begins to expand with the success of the monster’s habitation in the jungle.
Monsters is not a big budget film. There are next to no special effects (although those present are eloquent). Camerawork is largely limited to a head-height tracking of the main characters and sweeping shots of the surrounds, which gives the film a sense of urgency during tense moments, and a kind of bored intimacy in between. In order to ‘catch up’ the viewer, there is a heavy reliance upon incidental prop-signage (government signs, TV news items, newspaper headlines) to communicate the breadth of damage caused by the presence of the aliens. Occasionally these signposts are too simple, or oddly in English despite their location in Mexico, and are overall a little too noisy. When the plot moves its two hackneyed travellers into the jungle, this level of reliance upon media formats to set the scene is shaken off, and the quality of the story ripens. It is in the jungle that a true Odyssean struggle can take place, where wave after wave of misfortune, encounters and oases are burst upon by our heroic pair. The infected zone is the place in which they are changed, and also the setting in which this narrative is at its most unique and spectacular. The proximity of the two main characters with the creatures is in steady incline throughout their journey. This build-up is contrasted against their sense of removal from the wired-in everyday. Their trek through the danger zone is intended to be brief, a means to and end, a shortcut home. Instead, a sense of permanence seeps in to their struggle through the wilderness, as they adapt to constant peril.
Monsters is not really the indi-romance it is made out to be. Whilst its two main characters happen to be waifish, culturally sensitive, untalkative nomads, their relationship develops in a manner befitting of a fully-fledged drama. Its evolution is tethered to reality, and its impact is powerful. It doesn’t exist in order to neatly tie up loose ends at the conclusion of the film, and seems to have a certain realism. The couple’s connection is formed out of a shared experience, where they rely on one another for emotional strength, rather than lust or mutual attraction in the Hanks/Ryan sense.
After viewing Monsters, I would also tend to shrug off any declaration that it is the ‘District 9’ of this year. There are similarities of course, the issue of containment borders, the comparatively small budgets, the circumvention of big name actors in favour of unknowns. Despite this, District 9 had a distinct political agenda, which pulled focus, and secondary to this, it aimed for entertainment value much more highly through its use of dark comedic undertones, special effects, action sequence and more simplistic romantic elements. Monsters is a film with less in it. It’s selective. This is the crux of the difference between the two.
This is a film as strewn with political metaphor as its sets are with debris and bodies. These images, however, are jumbled together so that no single reading can be divined; A huge Berlin-style wall separates us from the Aliens; Passing through the borderland between the US and Mexico requires tricky or underhanded immigration techniques; The US government has set up a semi-permanent presence in alien territory, constantly sending fighters and unmanned bombers over the region; The use of gases and chemical weaponry is an ominous rumour; The impoverished townships near the disaster zone are unstable and largely ignored internationally vis-à-vis welfare. Whilst it could very well be argued that this plethora of allusions constitutes some kind of singularity, or uniqueness to the film, it could also, and equally, be considered to draw too heavily upon disparate political and military histories. Perhaps the latter is more likely. For a creature film, Monsters seems to miss out on an opportunity to build up a new world, an alternate future with new rules and circumstances. It forgoes the Science Fiction tradition of invention. Instead, we see a future that, despite the presence of the titular Monsters, has progressed no further than its current state. If aliens landed tomorrow, we (I mostly mean America) would probably shoot at them and cause the carnage of whichever civilisation they happened to crash into. We are not ready to interact with aliens any more than the nations of the world are able to amicably interact with each other.