REVIEW: Monsters [2010]

“I don’t cause it, I just document it”

I’m not sure you can call it an alien invasion when we send a space probe out to find information, only to have it crash land over Mexico upon its return with extra-terrestrial life. America brought its new enemy to the world of Gareth Edwards’s Monsters, a human story of survival, fear, and love six years after the creatures have taken over the middle of North America, coast to coast. The area is now known as the Infected Zone and it shouldn’t be tread without proper security, sun overhead, or else you won’t just risk meeting one of the giant, squid-like beasts, but also the military strike soon to follow its resurfacing. While the danger is real, many who live by the borders stay because it is their home and they have nowhere else to go. The US government has built a wall larger than China’s to bolster safety north, but unlike illegal immigrants wading through water to find prosperity, the aliens come with forceful power. Whether their anger and aggression is intrinsic or caused by army attacks isn’t quite known, but the way things look, it might be time for humanity to realize they no longer rule nature.

Where most filmmakers with a vision of terror such as these monsters would craft an action thriller around them, Edwards does something different. He posits two Americans, psychologically alone, trying to find a way to fill the void in their hearts. Scoot McNairy’s Andrew Kaulder is a photographer roaming the border for a chance to snap an image worthy of his renowned newspaper, leaving behind a son back home—a boy he has built his own wall between with a mother who refuses to let him know his true father as anything more than a family friend. Whitney Able’s Sam Wynden has been in Mexico—fluent in Spanish and with the means to travel and live comfortably since her father is the owner of Kaulder’s paper—escaping the reality of home and the fiancé she has discovered might not be the love of her life. Hurt in an attack on one of the creatures that got too close to an inhabited hotel, Sam becomes a priority for her father who contacts his employee, the only person in the area on the payroll, to retrieve and bring her back. Begrudgingly, he accepts the task, knowing it ruins his chance at getting a large payday, and escorts the girl to the border where she can mount a ferry and sail across home.

While still a thriller, Monsters also becomes a story of these two and their opening up to what really matters in the face of their mortality. Only when it appears they won’t get home do they realize what life means; in the face of brutality, their true selves come out. Kaulder finally sees murdered innocents and finds he can’t take the photo knowing he has his own young son, someone he’d never allow a person like himself to exploit, and Sam discovers there is more than the money and perfect husband-to-be waiting back home, there is real strife that can no longer be blocked out by her suburban hideout far away. Fallible to a fault, though, both find themselves making mistakes, opening up to be shot down and shutting down the other when they finally open up. It’s a case of bad timing and questionable choices with tequila and sexual desire the night before the last ferry in six months leaves for the US that leaves them stranded, facing the prospect of bribing officials to travel through the Infected Zone. Looking after one another, they find that survival is merely a flip of the coin and their fate to hopefully live to fight another day should never be taken for granted.

One could say the film is too subtle, but I’d argue that is precisely what makes it great. A haunting score plays in the background, the monsters themselves are shown in darkness from afar or through the television, and our main focus is on Able and McNairy evolving from two-dimensionally selfish characters to fully-formed fighters doing what they can to stay alive and experiencing what those back home only read about. Some of the dialogue can be clumsy, but the performances make up for any shortcomings, especially in their revelatory climatic discoveries of what matters most to them as well as how similar the creatures are to our own race. Sam and Kaulder are lost behind enemy lines, scared and willing to do anything. But did anyone think to realize the aliens were in the exact same position? Stranded on unfamiliar territory, they have done what they could to stay alive, finding means for reproduction and expanses to live in peace. Just as our own safety needs war to stay whole, they too go after their oppressors to protect family. The journey shown here, then, allows Sam and Kaulder to discover what’s worth saving in their own lives and, by the end, they too find themselves in a new world, ready to start over without regret.

Monsters 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

[1] Scoot McNairy in MONSTERS. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing
[2] Whitney Able in MONSTERS. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing.
[3] Scoot McNairy in MONSTERS. Photo courtesy of Magnet Releasing

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