First Impressions of "Monsters": A Quarantined Mexico Packed With Aliens

The advance word (more like hopeful speculation, really) was that this would be the "Mexican District 9," but Monsters is a much more modest and subdued affair, and perhaps its greatest accomplishment is the establishment of its intriguing new mythology.

Here's the blurb for this film, which played at SXSW this week:

Six years ago, NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A probe was launched to collect samples, but crashed upon re-entry over Central America. Soon after, new life forms began to appear there and half of Mexico was quarantined as an INFECTED ZONE. Today, the American and Mexican military still struggle to contain 'the creatures'...

That's the juicy and just-cryptic-enough setup for "Monsters", English director Gareth Edwards' story about a down-on-his-luck American photojournalist named Andrew (Scott McNairy) who is tasked by his boss to escort the boss' daughter Samantha (Whitney Able) out of Mexico, back to the U.S. border and presumed safety.

The entire Mexican countryside is on constant high alert from the threat of attack by 'the creatures' (they're never given any other name), and every scene is peppered with signs of devastation from previous run-in's with the giant, walking octopi-like aliens. Andrew and Samantha at first make their way to the world's most expensive ferry, one that will safely guide Samantha to the U.S. mainland without incident, but Andrew screws that up when he hooks up with a Mexican hooker and ends up losing their money and passports. Their only alternative is to head through the "infected zone", the rural path through Northern Mexico that is teeming with the creatures, and requires bribes and a number of armed guides.

The notion of a quarantined Mexico full of hostile, hulking alien monsters is a grabber, to be sure, but Edwards and company don't seem particularly interested in exploiting the subject matter for any sociopolitical subtext or commentary on one hand, or the obvious action/adventure or horror potential on the other. More than anything, this is a love story, one in which an unlikely couple get off to a shaky start, and will they or won't they? All that. And the travelogue nature of the narrative is one that calls to mind tons of previous films, from "Beyond Rangoon", "City of Ghosts", "Blood Diamond", even "Salvador", but never achieves the richness or gravitas of such efforts, and suffers from the resemblances.

In terms of the sci-fi-specific tone and scope, "Monsters" is clearly hoping to be grouped with the recent crop of more sophisticated sci-fi like "Children of Men" or "Moon" that puts the human element of the story as much in the forefront as the more fantastic elements. But its two main (and basically only) characters are only slightly more interesting and likable than the ones in, say, "Cloverfield", and their love story is bland and obligatory. Both are attractive, have excellent hair, and are too young and self-absorbed for their stories to garner much in the way of sympathy or respect. Which would be okay, I guess, if their journey involved some awakening or at least a contrast of cultural perspectives, but that's never addressed here.

The most interesting deviations from the typical occur particularly in the portrayals of the few Mexicans who get a moment or two in the spotlight. The gun-wielding guides that appear in the second act (it's hinted that these men were all revolutionaries before the aliens appeared), aren't the stereotypes we're used to seeing more often than not, and during a campfire talk with Andrew and Samantha offer more insight into the nature of the creatures themselves. And wIth the exception of the ferry manager, who charges Sam $5,000 for a ticket, every other Mexican character (each of them admittedly minor) is depicted as just another regular guy or gal, trying to get by and make a living in the shadow of impending cataclysm. Andrew's and Samantha's dynamic, while frustratingly typical in every other department, has an interesting twist in that Andrew isn't particularly effective as a guide or protector. He mainly takes pictures and gripes, while Samantha is the one with a more informed understanding of the countryside, and is a relatively fluent Spanish speaker. The smattering of special effects are occasionally pretty impressive, too, and make good use of the limited budget, especially in the climax when we're given the most extensive look at the aliens, although some of the CGI tanks and ruins come across as jarringly plastic.

While "Monsters" probably won't warrant much in the way of repeat viewings, it's still worth checking out as a further example of how science fiction cinema is steadily broadening its horizons into areas of mainstream acceptability. This one might have seemed on paper like a modern-day "African Queen" with aliens, and the truth is that it wouldn't take a drastic amount of work to turn this into a vehicle for Jennifer Aniston or pre-Oscar Sandra Bullock. Fine if you're into that sort of thing, but the premise deserves better. While I can find something to admire in the filmmakers' resistance to a gorier or more "science-fiction-y" approach to the material, what we end up with is an uneasy mix, one that makes me wish the filmmakers had tried a little harder to find a clever way to get the blood up.

Originally published by rochefort, on Quiet Earth.

UPDATE: Monsters just got a distribution deal (via HR). No word on when we'll see it in theaters, but hopefully this year.