A NASA probe crash lands in Central America unleashing strange new life forms as half of Mexico is quarantined as an infected zone. Six years later, US and Mexican military forces wage war against enormous alien creatures that run amok inside the zone and seem on the verge of encroaching American territory. Photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is eager to get at least one ‘money shot’ of the creatures in action, but finds himself tasked with escorting his boss’ stranded daughter, Sam (Whitney Able) across the monster ridden wilds to the seeming safety of the US border.
As a low-budget wonder, Monsters is a greater achievement than The Blair Witch Project (1999) in that writer-director/effects artist Gareth Edwards forsakes gimmickry and gets back to character detail and solid storytelling. In fact, Edwards initially confines his tentacled terrors to eerie noises in the dark or unsettling images on a news broadcast, as the film is foremost a compelling love story. With striking, charismatic performances from Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able - last seen in the similarly revisionist though far more flawed All the Boys Love Mandy Lane (2006) - the romance develops in a wholly naturalistic and believable way, oddly akin to such indie dramas as Before Sunrise (1995).
At first Andrew seems like a man of integrity, as he lectures Sam how her publisher dad won’t pay anything for a photo of a smiling child but thousands for a picture of a dead one. But Andrew is actually a bit of a flake. He has a child from a previous liaison too superficial to be labelled a relationship and loses Sam’s passport as a result of a one night stand. Yet Andrew has enough human decency to cover the corpse of a Mexican child slain by the monsters and to lament a lack of intimacy with his own offspring. Similarly, we have Sam first pegged as another spoiled little rich girl, but in fact she is far more empathetic towards their Mexican hosts (she speaks Spanish, whereas Andrew does not) and is quietly resourceful and strong. While Edwards never signposts Sam’s personal problems in the lazy, soap operatic way most mainstream science fiction movies do, it remains obvious that she, like Andrew, is an emotionally damaged, troubled individual for whom the ensuing adventure proves some sort of catharsis.
Some chose to interpret the plot as a kind of allegorical role-reverse commentary on US immigration policy, but this is something Edwards has denied. What is undeniable is the film deals with the psychological scars wrought by 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, the global financial crisis and the aftermath of the Iraq/Afghanistan wars, in a remarkably profound way. “It’s different looking at America from the outside”, remarks Andrew whilst surveying the vast walls that surround the infected zone. The country is besieged by monsters, but aside from erecting barriers and dropping cluster bombs, nobody seems to know what to do. Edwards delivers suspenseful set-pieces as potent as anything Steven Spielberg did in War of the Worlds (2005) or Matt Reeves managed with Cloverfield (2008), but his characters are never so caught up in the adventure aspect that they lose sight of the human cost. They glimpse piles of human bones along the city streets and watch prayers being said by candlelight beside photos of lost loved ones, and are visibly moved. It says a lot about Monsters’ accomplishments that after years of being numbed by CGI extravaganzas, our first glimpse of a slimy tentacle or the sound of a monster’s roar still induces a frisson of real fear and awe. The film eventually finds hope in a moment of shared wonder that both galvanises the characters and implies the monsters are more than mere killing machines and a greater understanding of them might be possible.
Maybe the most remarkable thing about Monsters, given its acclaim as both a piece of cerebral science fiction and edgy social satire, is that it remains a very warm film exhibiting a generosity of spirit towards its flawed protagonists, a refusal to resort to a clichéd depiction of the Mexican characters and, in spite of its sporadic bursts of Lovecraftian horror, an optimistic vision of humanity enduring a crisis. And the monsters are icky and cool.