The premise of the sci-fi drama Monsters envisions illegal immigration on an intergalactic scale. An unmanned NASA spacecraft has crashed on Earth carrying extraterrestrial hitchhikers, which proliferate across Mexico's northern half. The already contentious U.S.-Mexican border becomes even more militarized as the American government tries to contain the huge, hostile entities in the sprawling "Infected Zone."
Like many creature features, Monsters uses its oversized beasties for metaphorical value, like the way Godzilla represented A-bomb anxieties or District 9 reconsidered apartheid via the alien "Prawns." Last year, District 9 earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination thanks to its thrilling, provocative filmmaking. While Monsters doesn't have comparable depth, director Gareth Edwards blazes a trail for future monster mavens.
Photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) crisscrosses Central America at the Infected Zone's southern frontier, trying to capture an image of one of the creatures. An early scene finds him with soldiers in night-vision goggles who blast away at a bioluminescent, squid-like behemoth with spindly legs (that, frankly, don't really look structurally sound). Andrew must put his professional ambitions aside upon learning that his publisher's daughter, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), has received minor injuries nearby and needs assistance getting back to the United States.
Andrew and Samantha, a runaway bride, get to know each other while traveling to the coast to catch the last boat north. Meanwhile, the audience picks up details about the squid-ridden, Third-World landscape. A "Dora the Explorer"-style animated PSA warns children to wear gas masks as protection from the airborne poisons intended to kill the creatures. King Kong-size electric fences run along hilltop ridgelines.
The couple makes it to the port on time, but through some inexcusably boneheaded behavior, misses its safe passage and must make other plans. Between McNairy and Able's weak performances and their roles' dumb decisions, it's hard to sympathize with the characters. They end up hiring locals to illegally guide them north up winding rivers and narrow mountain trials, like a Heart of Darkness version of a border-crossing narrative. Given Andrew and Whitney's financial sacrifices and reliance on untrustworthy strangers, Monsters emulates the kind of film that subjects privileged white people to the kind of tribulations impoverished people of color regularly face.
Writer/director/cinematographer Edwards almost literally offers an example of guerilla filmmaking, as Monsters frequently relied on a handful of crew and improvised dialogue with Central American locals. With a production budget reported to be $15,000, Monsters economically cultivates moody sequences in tense jungles and demolished streets where something alien could lurk around the next corner. Incidentally, Monsters' Atlanta release coincides with the Buried Alive Film Festival, held Nov. 12-13 at the Plaza Theatre, which showcases the ways low-budget digital filmmaking has fostered a boom in horror films.
It would be nice to be able to grade films on a curve based on how much or how little they cost. Monsters reveals that it can be easy to make Cloverfield-style scenarios without a lot of money. But it's hard to ignore the flatness of the film's characterizations, especially since it depends on Andrew and Whitney's relationship more than violence or "boo!" moments.
At least Edwards doesn't oversell the notion that the fearful response to the monsters may be more harmful than the creatures themselves. Near its finale, Monsters finds a moment of unexpected, otherworldly beauty that tempers its allegory for anti-immigrant hysteria. Plus, it leaves room for a sequel about the potential menace of giant, tentacled "anchor babies."
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