Monsters (2010)

It’s nice to review a movie the same day as The AV Club does.

In thinking about my two favorite Sci-fi movies, they share two qualities. One, a strong theme or point of view and two, an attention to detail. I could watch Children of Men and Brazil (what I’m classifying as my favorite sci-fi movies) again and again because I find something new each time I watch.

Monsters is a good-looking low-budget Sci-fi movie that should probably change it’s name. It isn’t about Monsters. The movie isn’t a high-octane thrill-ride or even something like War of the Worlds. You only see about a handful of creatures (the movie only refers to them as creatures). Monsters is just plain the wrong name. A co-worker who also watched the movie last night on HDNet (it’s not in theaters yet, but you can get it on Video on Demand or HDNet) came to work mad because he expected wall-to-wall monster killing or something akin to District 9. The first ‘action’ sequence doesn’t even occur until an hour in the film.
However, District 9 could be Monsters’ spiritual precursor. It’s a low budget, almost documentary style film that has decent effects and approaches the theme as a way to deliver a message. District 9 was not so subtly about apartheid as Monster is not so subtly about immigration.
The basic plot is, as they say in video game parlance, an escort mission. A photojournalist has to escort his boss’ daughter through an infected zone to get her back to America.
You see, six years ago, a US space capsule crashed in Northern Mexico containing life from outer space. The space creatures then proceeded to grow and take over the whole top half of Mexico. They’re basically 100 foot walking octopuses who seem to thrive on electrical things. The US built a giant wall along the Rio Grande (hmmm, familiar idea?) to keep the creatures out. Does it work? Well….

However, take out the occasional Monsters and you have a romance/road picture about the photojournalist and the already engaged daughter. The twist in this movie is they are the only real actors in the film. To save money, the director used real Mexican locations and regular folks to fill out the rest of the cast. For the most part, this ploy works and strengthens the docu feel. Only the two principals seem like they’re ‘acting’ in some of the scenes among the more stoic Mexican cast. The writer/director also did all of the creature effects and he certainly knows the best way to cover up any flaws is to have nighttime attacks—the monsters look credible, better than any Syfy production.

The script is pretty strong, only bringing out the Message Hammer ™ in one scene on top of an Aztec ruin. That scene could have easily been cut, we get it, the US sees immigrants as monsters. The giant wall in the back ground drives that point home. Otherwise, the plot moves pretty organically, albeit a bit slow for what the title suggests the pace should be. In fact, many might see the ending as anti-climatic, but I liked the wonder of it and thought it served the romance aspects of the film well.

Back to what struck me most about the film, the details. Lazy movies, especially Sci-fi, will trot out a character to explain what the monster does, how it acts and how we’re responded to it. Monsters doesn’t do that, everything you need to learn about how the world has changed is all in the back ground of this devastated third-world Mexico. Signs, news reports, cartoons, graffiti, implied and overheard conversations, it’s all there. Children of Men and Brazil (and District 9) excelled in this sort of world building, as does Monsters. It’s always nice when a movie doesn’t treat you like you’re dumb.

Monsters isn’t the best Sci-fi movie or as good as District 9, it can be a bit heavy-handed, but it’s nice to see the genre open up and incorporate other genres using the Sci-fi elements as background. However, the most encouraging aspect of Monsters is that truly, really, a gigantic budget isn’t needed to make a quality monster movie. I may like the film more for what it represents than for what it is.

Oh, but really, change the name Monsters. There were more actual Monsters in the Charlize Theron movie Monster than this Monsters.

One possible suggestion for a sequel—Mexican cartels. How do they get all that marijuana north of the border now that giant octopuses roam the land?

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