Monsters sounded like it had a ton of potential, a film I was definitely looking forward to trying. The end result? A mixed bag. The parts that work are home runs. Overall though? Mostly a swing and a miss.
It's been six years since a NASA space probe carrying a form of alien life crashed into Mexico. The aliens have set up shop (of sorts) in a zone that's been dubbed the Quarantine Zone with the U.S. military guarding the border on either side, both north and south. More or less, the aliens have been limited and kept under control, but there doesn't appear to be a way to truly defeat and wipe them out. South of the quarantine zone, photojournalist Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is contacted by his employer and given a key task. The boss' daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), is also south of the zone but needs to get into the U.S. The only way there? Through the Quarantined Zone, navigating a war-torn land where immense aliens lie in hiding.
I can't think of a movie I've seen even somewhat recently that is so good in parts and so bad in others. So let's get that out of the way. I won't be giving it a positive review, but there are parts on their own that are definitely worth checking out. If director-writer-cinematographer Gareth Edwards could have made a whole movie about the parts that work, 'Monsters' would be a near-classic. Composer Jon Hopkins' score is a gem -- listen to the theme HERE -- that is equal parts soothing and calm in an ethereal way and unsettling in its ability to be quiet and underplayed. The cast is mostly limited to McNairy and Able (more details later), and we get the sense of what a world would be like years after an alien invasion of sorts. If there was ever an art-house alien invasion flick, this would be it.
Those are the parts I love. It is an understated, underplayed story that plays almost like a documentary. Other than the early explanation via title cards, we learn little about how the aliens came to be, how the fighting went, how the situation came to be as we see it. Leaving certain things to the imagination doesn't always work out, but here it does. It adds a sense of mystery. The opening sequence shows a military convoy fighting an alien, setting the stage for the movie in an unsettling beginning. From there on though, the focus is through the eyes of Kaulder and Samantha. We see a war-torn land where the carcasses of long-dead aliens remain. We see an already poor country in Mexico brought to the brink of destruction, the people left in the Zone struggling for survival. It never panders for emotion or goes for an obvious message in those scenes. Now, if only the rest of the movie could have taken that idea to heart.
It, of course, does not. Why must directors/producers/writers insist on adding a not-so-thinly veiled message into their films? Usually, that message is about current events in some form or another, and here, it's immigration. More specifically, illegal immigration between the United States and Mexico along the Rio Grande. To keep the aliens in the Zone and out of the U.S., the military has built an immense, heavily fortified wall all along the border. Subtle it is not. Thankfully, the issue isn't overly used to the point I wanted to rip my ears off, but basically any mention of the "alien fence" came across as heavy-handed and obvious to me. It's a movie about a Quarantined Zone still occupied by humans who are trying to survive against aliens stranded on our planet. Why does it have to be something else? Why can't it just be what it is? Nah, that makes too much sense.
That ends up being at least half of the film's downfall. But I'm trying to keep you on your toes so I'm going to bounce back to the positive, starting with the portrayal of the aliens. The creatures are a mix of the Cloverfield monster, the War of the World creatures, and the aliens from The Mist. Like in Cloverfield, we never truly see them head-on to get a great, clear look at them. We see and hear them in the distance, see them skimming along under the water's surface, see them moving in the dark. It's that sense of mystery I mentioned earlier that gives 'Monsters' that needed edge. As an audience, we're allowed to make up our minds to a point. What exactly is going on with these creatures? Are they even violent creatures or did we make them that way with our attacks meant to eliminate them? That mystery can go either way, but for me in this instance, I really liked it. A very effective scene is in the finale as we get our best look at the creatures, but that's undone by the final scene. As for that part....
The review is getting a tad long, and I feel like I'm rambling a bit, but I have to make one more point. Playing the only two main characters, McNairy and Able are all right as Kaulder and Samantha. My biggest issue with the characters is that they're just not likable. They are done no favors by a script that limits everything they do. Kaulder is separated from a woman he had a child with (wouldn't you know? It's nearing his birthday) while Samantha is heading home to be married (wouldn't you know? She's having second thoughts). A story with a ton of potential about this post-apocalyptic situation degenerates into a story ripped right out of a romantic comedy. Will Kaulder and Samantha end up together? Will they figure out what they want in life? Gag me. What a ridiculous twist. The final nail is the closing scene, an open-ended finale that disappoints. So know what you're getting into. At just 94 minutes, it never overstays its welcome, but it's never a truly worthwhile watch.
Monsters (2010): ** 1/2 /****