Image courtesy of Magnet.
“Monsters” Starring Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able. Directed by Gareth Edwards. 94 minutes. Rated R.
Late in the movie “Monsters” there comes a moment a literary book reviewer might call “luminous.” Ever notice how literary book reviewers always bring the word “luminous” into play, as if to excuse the lack of plot, the unfolding of dreary characterization and the trendy massacre of clearly wrought prose? You will never hear a Larry Bond novel called “luminous.”
This illuminating moment takes place when our two protagonists, Andrew (Scoot McNairy) and Samantha (Whitney Able), witness two 300-foot tall walking squids engage in making out, foreplay, maybe actual intercourse – with all the flailing tentacles, bioluminescent pulsing and noble whale song-like groaning it’s hard to tell what’s going on. Andrew and Samantha watch in awe as these two leviathans perform the vertical bop and you expect them to whisper, “Beautiful” as they gaze adoringly at each other.
I was whispering “Will somebody please BLOW THESE THINGS UP?”
To paraphrase my friend Kari: “Monsters” is what happens when an indie filmmaker, the cinema equivalent of a literary writer, tells himself, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself … and monsters.”
“Monsters” isn’t about monsters, that’s for sure. The monsters are metaphors for Andrew and Samantha, or illegal immigration, or existential angst. But it is more about the message getting lost in a stew of competing thematic imperatives.
The story goes like this: NASA discovers evidence of life elsewhere in our solar system and dispatches a probe to recover a sample. The probe crashes somewhere in Mexico and shortly thereafter weird creatures begin disrupting the flow of cocaine to America. Andrew, a jaded photojournalist, goes into the “infected zone” to document the mayhem. But he somehow becomes responsible for escorting his publisher’s daughter, who has been in the area, back to the States. They try by land, sea and air but due to a series of setbacks, mostly caused by their own stupidity, they fail and must travel directly through the infected zone to reach the gigantic wall America has constructed along its border with Mexico. Along the way Andrew, who has a kid but not a wife, and Samantha, who is to marry a fellow she doesn’t love, discover a growing affinity for each other. Can you guess how this is going to end?
I will give Edwards credit: “Monsters” is ambitious. It is not another “Godzilla,” “The Mist” or “Cloverfield.” What I didn’t like about it, however, was the plodding pace, the incompetence of the characters and their forced transformations, which did not encourage me to suspend my disbelief.
Characterization is shaky. We are expected to dislike Andrew at first because of his cynicism, then bond to him as he realizes there’s more to life than shooting a prize-winning photo. In reality Andrew is a scummy opportunist who shacks up with prostitutes when Samantha won’t sleep with him, something he pursues with such diligence that Samantha could have had him arrested for sexual harassment. And Samantha, as the poor little rich girl, is a cipher with no real purpose for existence other than serving as an object of desire for Andrew.
At every critical juncture in their journey they pause, undecided, then embark on some irrelevant and unrealistic conflict that jeopardizes their success. For instance, at one point they must get off a boat and travel overland under the watchful eye of armed guards – except Andrew doesn’t want to because the guards are carrying guns. Um, excuse me, but what part of “armed” did he not understand? And in a land occupied by 300 foot-tall squids who like to squash human beings, would you rather your guards be armed with Nerf Frisbees?
And once they reach the wall, well. It’s every Tea Partier’s dream, a cement monolith designed to keep out “illegal aliens.” Except the aliens, as we see in the scene I referenced above, are nothing more than noble, benighted creatures who want nothing more out of life than a brief interlude of happiness amidst an uncaring world. Except they are 300 feet tall and like to squash humans. I say, “Will somebody please BLOW THESE THINGS UP?”
“Monsters” is an interesting movie but it has problems. On a scale of A to F I would rate it a C+.
Let’s start with a list.
They’re 300-foot-tall walking octopi, or is it octopuses? Get your mollusks straight, Del.
They do get blown up, you savage, it’s just not witnessed, and,
“Monsters” the movie has one of loveliest, mournfully serene soundtracks ever pasted to celluloid.
For me, the best way to characterize “Monsters” is this: The movie is deeply satisfying, but superficially disappointing.
It took me about 20 minutes to realize that the film was unlike a Godzilla smashfest, “Cloverfield,” or “The Mist.”
After that, I shed the expectation of carnage and allowed the movie to chart its own course. The story is about man’s inhumanity to man and our reckless belief that we can corral nature.
Samantha and Andrew are likable tools used to teach us a lesson. They do a good job leading us through the Infected Zone, where the alien creatures have established a sanctuary after being brought to Earth by a NASA probe that crashed.
Once in the zone, the duo exists to draw attention to the look of civilization as it’s consumed by its own folly.
Vines overtake hotels built for tourists.
An F-15 emerges from the depths of a river, playfully pulled through the black water by one of the tentacled beasts. It never bothers Samantha, Andrew, or the crew of the longboat hired at an exploitative price to help get the Americans back to America.
When the couple finally reaches the U.S.-Mexico border, it discovers that the zigzagging walled fortress separating one country from the other has been abandoned. The aliens had breached its ramparts. The fight has come to the Homeland.
Agreed, there’s some hokey symbolism in “Monsters.” Del already gave examples, but you have to give the director of the film credit for trying to create something original.
“Monsters” is an artsy film with a liberal message, which ain’t gonna play too good in these parts.
Sit back and enjoy the film, paying attention to events and scenes framing the relationship between Samantha and Andrew because that’s the movie’s strength.
Mladen Rudman is a former journalist and technical editor. Del Stone Jr. is a former journalist and author.