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Monsters DVD cover

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 (matthew.jones-4@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk) 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.



Matthew Jones is a Research Associate at University College London, where he is currently working on a major AHRC-funded project about memories of 1960s British cinema-going (www.ucl.ac.uk/cinemamemories). Prior to this he has taught at the University of Manchester, Manchester Metropolitan University, the University of Salford, the University of Central Lancashire and Birmingham City University. His published work focuses on film audiences and genre, both in historical and contemporary contexts.
9 comments on “Monsters”
jeff vandermeer

I liked this movie. Nice review, but I think you're asking the movie to do something more didactic that, to its credit, it isn't willing to do. I also would note that in my humble opinion this is not a movie with a romance subplot. There is ambiguity to that relationship and it is not at all in the trad Hollywood mode. It is not at all clear that this is more than friendship, heightened somewhat beyond that simply by the extremity of the shared experience of something extraordinary.
JeffV

I’m no sci-fi freak, but the difference for me between District 9, Skyline, and all the other genre extravaganzas is that District 9 and Skyline’s penultimate sequences were actually moving. That for me personally sets them apart from the likes of Tossformers and the like. Monsters was a waste of time apart from a nice piano score. I detest the way they reveal a glimpse every now and again, like a M.Night Shyamalan picture. It was only marginally better than Cloverfield. District 9 was terrible to begin with, but boy it hit you with a full-on finale. Monsters never got going, and fizzled out. They shouldn’t call it Monsters if it isn’t about Monsters.

Jeff: It is not at all clear that this is more than friendship, heightened somewhat beyond that simply by the extremity of the shared experience of something extraordinary.
That sound exactly like the recipe for a Hollywood romance to me!
More seriously, I do find it hard not to read the film as a romance. Firstly, the camera clearly frames them in a sexualised way. This is most notable in their night time piss up at the docks where the viewer is intented to think that Andrew has slept with Sam before it is revealed it is a local girl. It also comes through strongly in the scene on El Castillo Chichen Itza but I think it is there throughout the film. Secondly, the relationship between them is very much contextualised by their current/past romantic relationships with others.
Able and McNairy were apparently a real couple at the time of shooting and I'm sure that was intentional casting as I think so much of the film relies on a chemistry of attraction that goes beyond simple friendship.
Piebald77: They shouldn’t call it Monsters if it isn’t about Monsters.
This is the most trenchant film criticism I've ever read.

E. L. Wisty

Yes, Piebald77 makes a point which has been made before, but which really needs to be made every time this film is reviewed. It's not actually about monsters! It's about two people who fall in love after being thrown together under bizarre and stressful circumstances, accompanied by a critique of American xenophobia. Oh yeah, and PS, some giant space squids lumber about for a few minutes right at the end. Using that kind of logic, "King Kong" should be renamed "The Apple Thief".
One thing this review gets spot-on is the utter clunkiness of the attack the film makes on American attitudes towards foreigners. Although "District 9" was by no means bang on target every time, its aliens, however unattractive, were no worse in any respect except physical appearance than any large unwanted group of displaced persons living in enforced squalour. Whereas these creatures can apparently smash cities, pluck airliners from the sky, and destroy serious amounts of military hardware, and will do so whenever they get the slightest bit annoyed.
If this was a real situation, bearing in mind that we are never given the slightest information to suggest that these things are actually sentient, apart from a hint that anything which lights up when it mates can't be all bad (though jellyfish are pretty good at the old bioluminescence thing, and I don't think I'd get very far trying to discuss foreign policy with one of those), it wouldn't be the slightest bit unreasonable for the USA to take almost every measure it possibly could to keep these awful ETs outside its borders.
I found myself admiring the President's restraint in not nuking Mexico, then reflecting that he probably would have if the budget had allowed it, and finally realising what an artificial chain of thought this was, and how little I was caught up in that aspect of the film. I also couldn't help noticing that the references to America's use of defoliants were apparently a direct reference to the Vietnam War as if it was still going on. Hey. let's knock Germany! I seem to remember some guy called Hitler...
Really, as politics goes, this is woefully clumsy stuff, so much so that I think the muddled anti-logic of equating human beings who don't happen to be US citizens with vast mindlessly destructive horrors from Jupiter (or wherever it was - who cares?) is just incredibly naive undergraduate-level political philosophy that never got thought through anywhere near properly. On this level the film fails completely, unless you automatically assume that the USA is wrong about everything.
The road-movie romance aspect works a lot better, probably because the two leads - the only actors who really matter - were actually an item and are now married. If you want to watch that kind of film, fine, it's that kind of film - enjoy yourselves!
But as sci-fi, this fails miserably. We've never refrained from excoriating B-movies that claim to be about spectacular things which are barely shown until the last five minutes - why should we spare "Monsters"? Because that's what it ultimately is. Its politics are woefully crude but very fashionable, its two leads give an engaging performance which may not have involved all that much acting, and there are quite a few indications that this film wanted to be a full-on monster movie, but the little we see of the creatures is all they could afford.
For example, there's an extended scene halfway through which gives us multiple cues that the expected monsters are finally about to appear. Absolutely nothing happens, but the characters seem to think that these massive beasts may suddenly appear a hundred yards away out of the jungle and walk down a flight of steps! We of course don't know what the monsters actually look like, but the characters do because this has been going on for years - how can they possibly be afraid that they'll be surprised by something the size of a building stepping out from behind a tree? (Yeah, yeah, I know - "Cloverfield". But that was just dross. Though in this context, an unfortunate direct comparison is inevitable.)
This is bad film-making, and assumes that we won't notice because by the time the monsters finally show up we'll have forgotten (or gone to sleep). And trying to create tension by having people get nervous for no particular reason while the soundtrack music tells us we're nervous too only works in a film in which genuinely tense situations occur more than twice.
I don't think the director himself knew what his space-critters looked like until he stuck them in at the very last minute; and what we got was whatever he could afford, inserted wherever it would fit. The fact is, people are noticing this film because it's an incredibly low-budget B-movie with brief special effects sequences that are almost worthy of an A-movie, done by one guy on his home computer.
This could very well be the future of independent sci-fi and horror, especially as it gets easier and cheaper every year, and full marks to "Monsters" for showing that it can be done. But I think that some critics are falling over themselves to praise its subtlety and restraint when, like that massive accidental hit "The Blair Witch Project", it's really a case of the desired special effects being unaffordable, so what we get is a lot of talk about life, love and politics from two people who look at the scenery while waiting for the advertised attraction to show up.
This is a vaguely interesting independent film with benchmark special effects briefly visible, but not enough of them, and way too late. I'm afraid that my feelings on the way out of the cinema were: "Well, that last bit was cleverly done, given the low budget. But overall I'm bored and depressed. I wish it had been about monsters as I was led to believe."

I also couldn't help noticing that the references to America's use of defoliants were apparently a direct reference to the Vietnam War as if it was still going on.
Presumably it is much more likely to be a reference to the War on Drugs and the US's recent controversial defoliation programme in Central and South America.
I agree that the film is weak as a political critique. Apparently the director has said that wasn't his intention but given everything in the film it is hard to take that at face value and, even if we did, that wouldn't let him off the hook.
At the same time, Hitler? Seriously? After the Second World War German radically reconstituted itself and has been a peaceful, liberal nation ever since; after the Vietnam War the US remained an interventionist, imperial superpower. Monsters was made at a time when the Iraq War had already been going on for almost ten years. The Vietnam War may not still be going on but it is hardly unfair to continue to critique the US in similar terms.

jeff vandermeer

Personally, I think you're all bringing baggage to this movie that has little to do with what's actually on the screen.
JeffV

chiles

i think the title 'Monsters' is very much part of the (meta-ish) point of the movie--it isn't 'about monsters' in the conventional sense/in the way you may expect/want it to be; it might be better expressed as 'about "monsters"'--i.e., about our definition(s) of/expectations when we hear the word--though i'm reluctant to be quite so reductive. as to the contention that the movie is lacking in monsters, i'd say they're all over the place in the movie's fictional version of our world--very much in the way they're all over the place in our version of our world; in this case, they may not necessarily be the focus of what we see on screen (alhough they could be, depending on how you read the movie), but they're pretty much what 'enables' the story, driving our principal players into each other's arms (whatever you take that to mean in this case, i.e., romantic or not) & through their adventure. i'd say that's enough to let the movie have its title, but that's me.
personally, i liked how, in my experience, the movie derived a lot of its energy from the tension created between what i was being shown & what i was expecting to be shown precisely because of the so-called implications of the title, generated by my previous experience of the genre the movie was ostensibly operating in; in retrospect, i think Edwards with his filmmaking decisions was actually going out of his way to reassure the viewer that our players would make it out of this film unharmed (whatever might happen after the cameras stop recording), in favor of showing us how wonderful even such a desolated world can be in spite of or maybe even because of the presence of 'monsters'. i haven't yet figured out how this will affect a second viewing--i'm very curious to find out, but haven't yet got round to it--but for the one viewing i've given it so far, i felt the game of subversions was masterfully well played.

chiles

also: i think the suggestion that the American response to the aliens in this movie is meant to be an allegory of the American response to 'foreigners', thereby suggesting that the aliens themselves are meant to represent 'foreigners', is a very limited (and insulting to us 'foreigners', i might add) way of reading this movie. i think it may be more useful to see it as an examination of how different people with different cultural contexts/abilities/available resources respond to *the perception of danger*, with the added complexity of that perception being not entirely unjustified.

YHara

Adding to what chiles has proffered, we could also consider the idea that "monsters" cease to be monsters if we try to understand them.
Andrew regards the wayward daughter of his boss as a monster - seemingly innocent but having the potential to ruin his career (never mind the irony that his conflicting goals are for Samantha's father). This is further enhanced by her fluency in Spanish and her obvious comfort and joy in interacting with Mexicans. Andrew reacts with exasperation and is dismissive of her fondness. He doesn't understand her.
The audience begins to suspect that Andrew as a monster when he surreptitiously calls home while Samantha is out of sight and cuts it short. After their night out, he tries to invite himself into her room. At this moment, the audience only knows that he has a family about which Sam is not aware, and that he's trying to sleep with his boss's daughter - whose safety he is responsible for. He's a monster. Sam certainly thinks so, too, when she discovers the next morning that he has slept with a local woman instead.
For a time, they are equally monsters to one another when they have to go through the infected zone. Sam blames Andrew for having their passports stolen by the girl he slept with, and he probably blames Sam for providing that opportunity when he chased after her. Sam's decision to give her engagement ring in order to go through the infected zone instead of waiting to travel by a safer route also seems "monstrous."
Yet, as the movie progresses, we begin to understand them better - particularly Andrew. (Can't recall whether we are told if Sam has a job or not, and what she was doing in Mexico.) As we come to understand the two characters, they also discover - along with the audience in tow - that the monsters can even be beautiful if we are given the opportunity to understand them.
The parallels to alien immigrants and border crossing seem to be either ambiguous or oversimplified, but perhaps it's related to the idea that "monsters" are not really monsters, just like the film is not. Ultimately, is it possible to understand - and even appreciate - what we deem monsters if, instead of acting out of prejudice and resisting the tendency to fortify our preconceptions, we take the time to try and understand our "monsters"?
A good film, an interesting review, thoughtful comments, and this was fun to write. Thank you.

 

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