In 2009, when both filmgoers and the popular press were heaping praise on Neil Blomkamp’s District 9, I was rather more hesitant. I liked the film, but was quick to point out what I felt was a problem in the way that it married its style and content ("District 9," Film and History, vol. 40, no. 1 [Spring 2010], p. 120-22). While I was happily surprised to see it thematically embrace hybridity with the Other, I complained that, in a film so unusual in both its form and content, the final sequences disappointed in that they represented a retreat to, rather than a subversion of, the familiar codes of the science fiction blockbuster. These scenes saw the film devolve into an extended gunfight with a robot exoskeleton thrown in for good measure. A friend later pointed out to me that the intersection between man and machine highlighted by the advanced technologies in this sequence extended the film's celebration of hybridity, but for me this challenge to blockbuster norms, which often posit the Other as a dangerous figure to be avoided rather than melded with, could not be delivered through a sequence that reveled in the visual excesses that have come to characterize Hollywood science fiction. District 9 delighted in the cinematic language that it initially sought to critique, and ultimately presented something less exciting than the sum of its parts. However, as I left the cinema after seeing Gareth Edwards’s Monsters, I felt that I had been afforded a glimpse of an alternative history in which District 9 delivered on its early promise.
Monsters owes more than a slight debt to Blomkamp’s earlier offering, but manages to resist the call of the science fiction blockbuster tropes that mired its forerunner. Where District 9 lost its nerve and fell back on easy Hollywood clichés, betraying its attempt to criticize the politics of difference embodied by the films that it emulated, Monsters is uncompromising in its difference from dominant modes of science fiction cinema. It confounds our expectations of science fiction at almost every turn, carving for itself an intriguing identity as a film that is neither ashamed of nor particularly attached to its generic roots. It sets its story in the Mexican-American border region which has been occupied by creatures from another planet, but its narrative doesn’t take place until six years after the arrival of the beasts. The events of their invasion are only hinted at through flashes of news footage or strands of overheard conversation. The events that produced the world that this film inhabits, familiar from so many science fiction blockbusters, occurred in the past and entirely off camera. Monsters is largely indifferent to them. What we are shown instead is a much smaller story about two human beings caught up in a peculiar place at a peculiar time. This is not to say that their experiences are wholly non-science fictional, but rather that science fiction as Hollywood has most often understood it only ever intersects with or frames their story. It is never allowed to be a dominant force in the film.
This leaves the audience with the peculiar experience of exploring an unfamiliar world that is left largely unexplained. Symbols of this Earth's difference from our own are present in almost every scene, from signs warning travelers about the dangers of the alien-infested Infected Zone to the ruined military hardware that litters the landscape, but they are rarely addressed directly by the film and the viewer is instead left to make their own connections between these mysterious artefacts. The plot sees Samantha, the daughter of a publishing magnate, and Andrew, one of his photographers, attempting to pass through the jungle region occupied by the creatures to get back to the United States from Mexico. In doing so they invite the audience on a travelogue of sorts through a recognizable world rendered unfamiliar by the occasional and unnerving presence of science fictional objects. This is a film in which genre itself becomes a force lurking in the undergrowth, unwilling to emerge into plain sight.
Even when science fiction does manifest clearly in the film, during the sequences in which the alien creatures themselves wander into the frame, it is not the same type of science fiction as one would find in, for example, Skyline (2010), another of this winter's cinematic genre offering. In that film, the aliens appear as objects of spectacle in ostentatious spacecraft. Making heavy use of CGI, they hover conspicuously over cities, demanding to be seen. In Monsters, however, the aliens are largely obscured from sight. During an introductory sequence in which a creature comes under attack from soldiers and aircraft, it is only seen through grainy, night vision cinematography and through the black and white blur of a missile-mounted camera. Later, a tendril or two emerge from a river to encircle an abandoned military jet, but the audience is made to wait until the very end of the film to for an unobscured and complete image of the creatures. The primary site in which this film locates its tendencies towards science fiction, the creatures themselves, remains invisible for the vast majority of its runtime. As much as Monsters is a science fiction film, it is also largely uninterested in touting that aspect of its premise.
What remains, then, is essentially a romance film set in a science fictional world. Rather than gradually coming to dominate the narrative, as was the case in District 9, the science fiction of Monsters is satisfied to be for a backdrop for a very different type of story. As Sam and Andrew learn more about one another during their adventure through the Infected Zone, they realize their relationship has become romantic. Though initially hesitant, Sam decides to relent and kisses Andrew after she witnesses what one must presume is the mating ritual of the alien beasts. Science fiction is certainly present in this sequence, but the aliens simply serve as a way to drive a romance narrative that both the film and I were much more interested in.
This sequence is not, however, wholly successful. Drawing again on District 9, Monsters seemed at this point to want to obliterate artificial distinctions between the Self and the Other, a suggestion implicit in Sam and Andrew's kiss serving as a mirror for the alien copulation. In itself, this intention is laudable, and indeed District 9 was relatively successful at challenging the binary of human and alien. However, the political allegory attempted by Monsters is generally much weaker. The film clearly wants its audience to understand something about restrictive immigration policies, specifically within the US, and gives this voice through the construction of a barrier against the aliens along the Mexican border, recalling the real world Mexico-United States barrier built to keep out aliens of another sort. The recognition of the similarities between human and alien during the copulation sequence at the end of the film was probably intended to reinforce this criticism of isolationist nationalism, but for the majority of the film the aliens are depicted as bestial monsters who pose a real danger to the lives of anyone around them. If they are supposed to stand in for America's immigrant Others during certain sequences, the destruction that they cause wherever they go should raise eyebrows. Perhaps there is another reading of this film that can reconcile these aspects of its approach to Otherness, but this is hardly the point. Rather more significant is that the film simply does not engage with its political aspirations enough to provide a coherent commentary on the issues that it raises. While District 9 was too committed to its science fiction imagery to follow through on its promising allegorical ambitions, Monsters is unwilling to invest in either its politics or its science fiction. Its generic instability often works in the film's favor, but its allegorical uncertainty weakens it considerably.
This is not to say, however, that Monsters fails in any of its principal aims. This is a film whose primary goal is to allow its audience to explore a strange world alongside its protagonists. In this regard it succeeds admirably, with the result that watching Monsters feels oddly akin to traveling in an unknown country. Everything is at once ordinary but alien, recognizable yet unfamiliar. In terms of mood and atmosphere, this is a film that has much more to offer than its recent counterparts. Sadly, this is achieved at the expense of the coherent political commentary that the film clearly wants to make. This is unfortunate since there was never a particularly pressing need for Monsters to include any allegorical subtext at all, and I suspect that the experience of watching its strange and beguiling world unfold unadorned would have been more than enough for most audiences.
Matthew Jones (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a PhD candidate in The University of Manchester's Centre for Screen Studies. His thesis focuses on 1950s science fiction cinema and he has published work on Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica.