The first time I saw Monsters, the best I could say about it was that it was far and away the finest movie I’d ever seen about giant glowing ambulatory octopi. Yes, I was impressed with the effects work that special-effects technician Gareth Edwards—here also as writer/director/photographer/production designer—had conjured up with his paltry budget. I’d similarly been impressed with his computer-effects wizardry for his BBC film Attila the Hun (2008), but couldn’t get past the fact that it was still a film on Attila the Hun (not high on interest). That was more or less my problem with Monsters—it was still a movie about giant glowing ambulatory octopi. Monsters also lost points with me for its “mumblecore”-level dialogue. It still does.
However, I talked with someone about the film, who mentioned—more or less in passing—that it was like a National Geographic special as done by Werner Herzog, that it particularly recalled Aguirre: The Wrath of God (1972). The minute he said that, it made sense to me. After watching Monsters a second time with that in mind, I liked the film much better—and found it also evoked Apocalypse Now (1979) and possibly a less benign The African Queen (1951). At the very least, I admired it more, and better appreciated its accomplishments. I’ll also concede that the fact that the dialogue was improvised by the actors—only two of whom (Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy) are professionals—explains why it’s lackluster and lame, but it doesn’t alter the fact that it is lackluster and lame.
The story is fairly perfunctory. Several years prior to the action of the film, a space probe returning from a jaunt to Jupiter’s moon Europa (you have to catch this on the fly) brought back some alien life forms that seem to have found Earth—or at least a chunk of Mexico that separates it from the U.S.—congenial enough to set up house. (I suspect there are some significant scientific reasons why this is unlikely, to say the least, but it works well enough in context.) This has resulted in an area between Mexico and the U.S. called the “infected zone,” which is a kind of no man’s land buffered from the U.S. by a giant wall that would be the envy of the natives in King Kong (1933).
Our “hero” (using the term loosely) is photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), who has ended up in Mexico in search of material during the height of the monster season, when the octopi things seem prone to wandering into towns and causing havoc (which we only vaguely see in night-vision TV footage). While there, his boss saddles him with the task of getting his daughter, Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able), safely back to the U.S. This doesn’t turn out so well—mostly because both characters are on the self-absorbed jerk side—and they find themselves having to make it to the U.S. via mercenaries who specialize in transporting people through the infected zone and into the States. The subtext parallels to illegal immigrants are hard to miss.
That’s the plot, and once the film gets there, it’s strangely effective and sometimes fascinating. Plus, it has a disturbing ending that I won’t spoil—even if it’s not hard to guess. The journey through the infected zone is the most interesting and successful part of the movie. Unfortunately, there’s a good bit of fairly tedious setup before we get there. And that, for me, is why Monsters is only partially a good movie. I know there are those who will prize the realism of the characters and their dull-as-dishwater dialogue. I just can’t get on board with that. But I will say that Monsters is good when it’s on its game in the later portion of the film. And since it’s bound to come up, no, it’s not much like District 9 (2009), which is probably unfortunate. Then again, it’s not much like Cloverfield (2008) either, which is not unfortunate. Should you see it? Yes, if you’re a sci-fi fan and/or if you’re curious about the current state of DIY filmmaking. Otherwise, I’d call it a toss-up. Rated R for language.