Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review Monsters

Both: At last, Locus has sent us to see a swell movie. Advanced word was that this was this year’s District 9. But Monsters kicks District 9‘s ass. The setup is just as intriguing, the characters are a lot more interesting, and the script is easily ten times smarter.

Lawrence Person: Monsters is an extended exercise in low-key realism that works astonishingly well. This is probably the smartest film we’ve reviewed since The Prestige.

Both: Several years ago, a space probe returning to earth with samples of an alien life-form crashed, and before you can say Andromeda Strain, monsters have taken over northern Mexico, leaving a huge Infected Zone between the U.S. border and central Mexico. A photographer (Scoot McNairy) is supposed to get the daughter of his publisher (Whitney Able) out of the country; she is one of the survivors of a hotel demolished in an air strike on the alien life forms. The whole place looks like collateral damage and planes and copters are flying over almost all the early scenes, day and night.

Howard Waldrop: This movie’s probably too subtle for most horror-movie fans. It’s about people and how circumstances change them. The aliens are only glimpsed early on in blurry TV images: virtually the whole movie’s filmed with a pretty steady handheld camera. The templates here are the Korean movie The Host, District 9, Cloverfield and the new Skyline (which we tackle in two weeks), but it doesn’t look like any of them. We don’t see real aliens (only at night, dimly) until more than an hour into the film. Everything is suggested by sounds, people’s actions, and the way things look. One of the most chilling scenes is of a capsized yacht with a series of bloody handprints up the side, and the movie doesn’t make a big deal of that.

Through a series of logical machinations (as opposed to the usual horror-movie dumb-ass ones), the lady ends up with a $5000 ticket on the last ferry out of Mexico, but she and the photographer have lost their passports. They take a long Heart of Darkness journey in a small motor launch, up a non-existent north-flowing river, and are left to go overland without guides or armed guards. The analogy here is to illegal immigrants, but that’s a by-theme, not what the movie’s about.

LP: There are two separate subtexts that run throughout: The Global War on Terror (more Iraq than Afghanistan) and the U.S./Mexican border. Writer/Director Gareth Edwards is careful never to let either become explicit (though one conversation atop a Mayan temple comes close). The Mexicans in the film seem resigned to their fate of living at the edge of a battleground, and the main characters are too focused on their immediate concerns to think much about the bigger implications.

HW: The photographer has a failed relationship and a son. The publisher’s daughter is engaged to someone we never see. A hell of a lot is communicated by two people on phones; she to the fiancé, he to his ex and son. This comes just before a scene of giant aliens, who are vaguely like crosses between water-striders and squids, finding each other and mating above the abandoned gas station, where the characters find themselves just at the north border of the Infected Zone. The alien meeting is also the key to the human problem in the film, as in all good movies that resonate.

LP: Several times when reviewing a low-budget film, we’re inclined to cut them some slack when their artistic ambitions exceed their financial grasp (MirrorMask and The Nines both come to mind). Here there’s no need. Everything in Monsters looks like it was a conscious (and almost always successful) decision in order to tell a tightly-focused, understated, character-driven story about two people trapped in a situation far beyond their control. That includes decisions about when and how we see the creatures themselves. Edwards isn’t only the writer/director, he also did the cinematography, production design and visual effects (reportedly on his laptop), and shot the entire film for an unbelievable $15,000. (It looks more like $15,000,000. The world has come a long, long way from when it took Kerry Conran 12 hours to render each individual robot leg on his Mac IIci). Monsters isn’t a good low-budget movie, it’s simply a really good movie, period.

Where Edwards especially excels in comparison to so many other alien invasion tales is his masterful placement of the telling detail, of the tiny touch that may only be on screen for a few seconds, but succeeds in convincing you of the setting and how deeply he has thought about extrapolating the reality of the situation into the fabric of everyday life. There’s a folk-art mural in the background that depicts U.S. and Mexican planes and tanks fighting what look like walking octopi in the background of one scene. We see it for maybe five seconds, if that. And when they’re staying the night with a Mexican village family, there’s a TV showing what’s obviously some sort of kid’s program, with a cartoon-rendering of one of the creatures popping up behind a boy.

For such an ostensibly low-budget film, there are surprising moments of pure visual poetry. Our duo walks through a churchyard lit by candlelight, each set of candles a shrine before the photograph of a dead loved-one, most of them children. Then our protagonists climb up in the church above, looking down upon untold thousands of them, a scene of sad and eerie beauty. Later they’re aboard a longboat steering into a sunrise when the bubble wake behind their ship perfectly catches the glow of the sun. And the final scene of two of the monsters (apparently) mating as their photoreceptors flash has the same awe-inducing grandeur of the final, colossal monster in The Mist.

The movie stands or falls with its two principals, who are on screen 95% of the time, and the low-key realism of their characters carries the movie. Both Able’s waif, stranded uneasily between Daddy’s princess and a looming marriage, and McNairy’s adrift, scruffy photographer, are wholly convincing. They act like real people, not idiots in a horror movie. And unlike the main characters in Cloverfield, you actually care what happens to them.

Jon Hopkins’ understated ambient score also works beautifully to set the mood for the film. (I’m listening to the closing credits theme music I bought off iTunes even as I type this.)

HW: There are a few things wrong with this flick: the geography is screwed, not just the non-existent river. As far as I know, there are no Mayan temples within a mile of the US border. Metaphorically apt; topologically wrong.

Parts of this were filmed in the hurricane-ravaged areas of Galveston Island, and it’s the best use of real scenery since oil refineries in England stood in for Hue in Full Metal Jacket. You’ll believe it was filmed at a bombed-out US border town on the edge of the Infected Zone.

As I said, it’s too subtle for most horror fans. Just right, if you’re looking for a good SF flick that’s not stupid on any level. It’s about real people reacting to an SF situation. And it has an homage to the coal-cellar scene in Wells’ novel War of the Worlds. It’s the best thing since District 9, and it stands out like a sore thumb in this era of bleakness.

LP: Monsters is an incredibly smart film that deserves a full nationwide release. Right now it’s only in New York, LA, and (for once we lucked out) Austin, but it’s slowly rolling out into to various venues around the country. If your city is on that list, SEE IT.

Howard Waldrop‘s latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 – 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen’s Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

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