Writer and director Gareth Edwards says that if Cloverfield is 9/11, then Monsters is five years into the war on terrorism and nobody cares anymore. Edwards’ comment is also apt because, while Cloverfield and Monsters are very different movies, there is a feeling they share, a commonality of how humans can be awed by forces beyond their control. Or perhaps it’s that we are overwhelmed trying to control forces beyond our control.
The premise of Monsters is that six years ago, NASA discovered “the possibility of alien life within our solar system.” The probe sent for samples breaks up over Mexico and shortly afterwards some rather strange and dangerous creatures began to appear. The northern half of Mexico is declared an Infected Zone. The military wages an ongoing battle to keep the creatures contained, but it seems that incursions outside the Zone are constantly being made and it may be a losing battle.
One of our “adventure holidays”
The cast consists of just two actors, Scoot McNairy as Andrew Kaulder and Whitney Able as Samantha Wynden. He is a photojournalist, desperate to shoot some actual alien action, rather than merely take pictures of day-old carnage. She’s the daughter of Andrew’s boss, a media tycoon, and Andrew must find a way to get her safely back to the U.S.
Andrew is not, at first, very likable. He’s cynical, driven, a bit desperate to make his name and make some money. Sam, on the other hand, is beautiful, bright, calm, a little lost, a little sad. The pair run up against a series of mishaps that ultimately means they have to traverse the Infected Zone by bus, truck and foot.
Along the way they meet an assortment of Mexican citizens and see a variety of military actions. The aliens are glimpsed — they appear to be gigantic octopi crossed with spiders, a huge bag-shaped head-body atop a thorax loaded with legs and tentacles — but as in many well-made monster movies, the full view of the creatures is saved for the climax of the film.
The kindness of the people along the route, Sam’s sweet-natured openness, Andrew’s hard-bitten façade; all are explored en route to the good ol’ U.S. of A. By the time the couple finally makes it to the small gap in the formidable border fence, they have grown close. But further surprises await them once they’ve returned to their own country.
Beyond the flash and dazzle
Your Humble Reviewer won’t give away any more of the story than that, but suffice to say this movie grabbed me and held on to the end. Monsters is one of the best movies, of any kind, made in the last few years.
The comparison with Cloverfield is certainly valid, but Monsters is deeper, a more complex take on a world that is stranger, more dangerous and certainly more wonderful than what went before. Cloverfield was all surface; Monsters digs deeper, uncovering the human stories that lie beneath the flash and dazzle of first, violent encounters. And, of course, the question of who the monsters of the title really are is a vexing one.
Another movie with which Monsters might be compared is District 9, the 2009 flick about ETs living in a South African slum. And that notion of extraterrestrials finding a place for themselves on Earth goes back further to 1988’s Alien Nation.
But Monsters is definitely its own movie. Imaginative, beautifully filmed, superbly acted, it will definitely make YHR’s list of the year’s best. Highly recommended./JE
DVD extras: Commentary track with Gareth Edwards, Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy; very short minidoc and a few deleted/extended scenes.