When you start watching films for a living, “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin'” becomes the haunting muzak filling the background of your consciousness. Films quickly pile up in the mediocre category, with few hitting genius, or even atrocious levels. When Monsters finished, however, I was covered with goose bumps and wanted nothing more than to sit quietly in the dark to mull it over. It is a film so powerful, fascinating and personal that it is a celluloid definition of why we go to the cinema.
The story is simple enough: Six years ago, NASA collected samples of alien life, but upon re-entering the atmosphere, the probe broke up over Mexico. The northern half of the country becomes a no-man’s land called the infected zone where the so called Creatures now roam. Andrew Kaulder (Skoot McNairy) is a photographer tasked with escorting his boss’ daughter, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), from the uninfected half of Mexico back to the United States after an accident landed her in a hospital. This seemingly simple trip is complicated by stolen passports, train disruptions, and the seasonal migration of the Creatures.
Despite the title “Monsters” and the alien life forms sprinkled throughout the film, this movie isn’t fueled by special effects wizardry or monster attacks, but rather by the palpable characters we follow through alien country. Andrew carries measures of gruff surliness toward his rich companion, but behind the facade is a selfless nature striving to do right by others. Samantha’s quiet beauty and wealthy background don’t dampen her wit and ability to adapt to the increasingly hostile environments. Gone are the Night of the Living days in which the blond female runs around as a screaming, crying git. Where the film could have dumped these characters into trite trenches (gruff male hero who rolls his eyes at his pampered female companion’s inability to adjust to an environment bereft of spa treatments), their strengths and weaknesses are on full display in a balanced manner that accurately expresses the familiar frailties we all share.
These textured characters manifest themselves due to the script, or lack thereof. Director Gareth Edwards had certain plot points written, but it was up to McNairy and Able to decide how they were going to hit emotional beats. It was a huge risk, but it pays off in a way that makes Wall Street speculators green with envy. When you look back at the film you have to remind yourself that you didn’t just watch a documentary about people stuck in a warzone. There’s an emotional maturity, nuance, and dexterity on display that is the life force of Monsters. Instead of wrestling the complexities of the characters to the ground with didactic verbiage, Monsters allows this vitality to take center stage via quiet moments and slight gestures. Mia Wallace was referring to Monsters when she said, “That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the fuck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”
These qualities are well suited for Gareth’s simple camera movements that make voyeurs of us all when we listen in on Andrew and Samantha’s conversations; or companions as our perspectives adhere to their own. This isn’t jarring and amateur, but simplistic in a way that doesn’t remind the audience that “it’s just a movie.” These qualities in acting and filming allows Monsters to transcend the merely personal (District 9‘s treatment of Wikus) and achieve the sublimely intimate (Y Tu Mama Tambien or Half Nelson).
The constant threat of the Creatures, as well as the MINOR SPOILER possibility of a chemical weapons attack by U.S. forces, SPOILER OVER keeps the film buzzing with tension. These dangling threats, paired with the arduous work of trekking through dangerous territory, make the occasional moments of action all the more shocking, intense, and terrifying.
Due to criticisms of Cloverfield‘s monster, I’m sure there will be flak concerning the Cthulhu-inspired skyscrapers that fill the frame. However, since the film is less about the Creatures and more about Andrew, Samantha, and their emerging intimacy, don’t let these critiques gestate. The creatures merely set the stage for the dynamic displays of cinematic storytelling.
Monsters is also willing to use the personal as a conduit for the political: the amount of death and damage inflicted by the conflict with the Creatures runs parallel to the blood bath still being drawn by drug cartels in present-day Mexico; Samantha and Andrew’s quest to make it over a great wall erected to keep the creatures out of the U.S. easily stands in for U.S. immigration anxieties. Finally, the rusting carcasses of military hardware leftovers from clashes with the Creatures highlight the impotence of U.S. military technology in both fiction and non-fiction realms alike.
At its most Meta, one could construe the film’s story as a sweeping analysis of human living: we’re all trying to avoid being squashed by the bigger and more powerful forces of which we lack the power to influence (the battle between the U.S. military and the Creatures). These consuming anxieties then color the personal skirmishes we’re always fighting (Andrew and Samantha’s individual struggles). If Monsters had a thesis statement, I daresay that it would reflect a quote from Stephen King’s Firestarter: “Life is short and pain is long and we’re all put on this earth to help each other.” The ability to translate this sentiment into visual terms that scorns the didactic, verbalized affectations from Hollywood makes Monsters a genuine cinematic triumph.
If some diabolical fiend were to prevent me from ever seeing another movie, it would be punctuated by a bittersweet sentiment: “At least the last one was Monsters.”