So why are aliens so popular right now? Probably owes something to District 9, last year’s sleeper hit. Monsters, an excellent low-budget alien movie definitely feels like a distant cousin to the richly textured, gritty South African film. They are very different, but with the many upcoming alien movies from Skyline to Cowboys and Aliens, it seems like we’re going to be able to start making distinctions in terms of specific flavour.

In the case of Monsters, we get the realism and world-building of District 9with some truly inspired use of implication over explication in terms of revealing details about “the creatures”. Their effect, however, is felt everywhere and after 6 years of occupation in the “infected zone” area of Mexico, the locals are plain used to it.

Monsters follows an interesting and gripping odyssey taken up by two young people, Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and Sam (Whitney Able) who are forced to make their way across the zone and back to the United States. They are strangers in this land and we are made to experience the texture of the world Gareth Edwards has envisioned through them. Six years ago, a NASA probe brought alien life back to Earth. Are these creatures, massive Lovecraftian octopi, just dangerous wild animals or something more? Regardless, suppression and containment seem to be the policy of the United States and Mexico as their respective militaries try to fend the creatures off with mixed success.

Evidence of this state of affairs is at the edges of nearly every shot, from destroyed tanks and fighter jets to the booming lights of heavy ordinance seen and heard just over the next hill. We don’t learn much about the aliens, but a lot is implied both about their natures and that of our response. It seems like there are some socio-political themes but they are never explored fully and may exist simply to flesh out the backdrop of the narrative.

Monsters is kind of a love story and definitely a road movie. Because of the demands of these respective tropes, it’s sort of a slow-burn. Edwards made expert use of his obviously limited budget and there are some truly stellar shots and great moments of tension with the nightmarish creatures. Mostly, its strength is found in the commitment to realism and the subtle, naturalistic performances of the actors. It feels like a documentary in an unfettered way (unlike District 9, which used that as a narrative device).

There’s definitely a lot of work going into making the human characters as interesting as the dramatic background of alien invasion and whatnot. This is a mixed bag. I felt a lot of sympathy for Kaulder who has a son whose mother will not let him into their lives, but only so far. I felt less attuned to Sam who seems to be something of a spoiled rich girl off trying to save the world in quarantined Mexico, running from an engagement she obviously doesn’t want but doesn’t have the guts to fully eliminate.

That said, the slow buildup of attraction between these two, and the understated way its handled do make for a poignant ending. There is no posturing or standard Hollywood cliches: Kaulder is not forced to overcome impossible odds to save Sam from danger, in fact they both walk through their experience pretty bravely and their spectatorship and silent awe and confusion mirrors ours.

Belonging in the pantheon of super realistic science fiction films which currently features such notables as Children of Men, Moon, and District 9, this film is going to provide a strong counterpunch to the upcoming BOOM BOOM scifi flicks which will no doubt scratch a different itch. Monsters is unassuming, small, and intimate as well as being a very strong debut for Gareth Edwards who comes from a visual effects background (which shows).

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SPOILERS AHEAD

There are two things about the ending that weren’t immediately apparent until after the movie was over. One of them was that the aliens are intelligent. The way they are interested in our televisions and seem to be processing info received from them is a clear sign. Then there’s the way the two are interacting at the gas station, they seem to be showing affection for each other or sharing information. I think there’s something affectionate going on there if only because it is such an intimate moment as Kaulder and Sam watch in total awe, out in the open and completely ignored by the creatures.

In other parts, people talk about how they don’t bother you if you don’t bother them. We are given little if any justification for the massive military campaigning. This is part of the subtext of the film obviously. Still, it’s interesting that we aren’t explicitly told why these things are on Earth or if they have an agenda. They are totally inexplicable baby Cthulus romping around Central America like it ain’t no thang.

The other thing is that what seems like an abrupt and open-ended final shot really isn’t. This is one of those films where the end happens at the beginning. You don’t realize it right away either and it’s kind of the neatest trick Edwards pulled off, creating an after-the-fact emotional punch that a lot of people are going to miss. The fact that Kaulder and Sam walk into an America that’s been breached adds another layer of horror to the ending, suggesting that America is as doomed as their love and probably adding another layer of criticism to American foreign policy, militarism, etc.

This may be one of the best films of the year.

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