Writer-director Gareth Edwards’ new science-fiction picture Monsters is quite thought-provoking. Unfortunately, the thoughts it provokes are “When is this going to be over?” and “Will anything happen first?”
Monsters is about an American photographer sent to accompany his boss’ daughter safely from Central America to the United States. One would think that this journey, undertaken in a near-future world where NASA probes have inadvertently brought back (apparently) malevolent extraterrestrial cephalopods, turning northern Mexico into an “infected” zone, would be complicated and fraught with peril. Barring that, one would hope the journey would at least be interesting. Alas, some things are not meant to be.
Without giving away too many plot spoilers—hard in a movie with barely any plot—anyone unfortunate enough to find themselves watching Monsters should be aware that the title may not refer to the things with the tentacles, but to Americans. Science fiction is a good place to make political arguments, as it lends itself nicely to allegory. If one wishes to argue that America’s foreign policies have damaging effects on the rest of the world, fine. Do so. But make the argument well, in a good movie.
A movie that is both glacially paced and excruciatingly obvious about its message is not a good argument; Monsters is both of those things. Before we even encounter any of the things with the tentacles, it is very clear that the American soldiers shooting at them are the bad guys (a point reinforced by the fact that one soldier in each unit we encounter is constantly humming “Ride of the Valkyries,” a painful reference to Apocalypse Now, a good movie about Americans truculently messing things up).
A movie of ideas needs to make those ideas through its story—otherwise it’s a polemic, which is fine, but a polemic is not a movie—and the story derives from the actions of its characters. When the characters are as appallingly stupid and unpleasant as the photographer lead Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy, in an unfortunate performance), the whole enterprise is doomed. Whitney Able fairs slightly better as Samantha Wynden, the boss’s daughter, who seems more than capable of getting home by herself: she speaks pretty good Spanish, has money to buy safe(ish) passage home, and keeps her head in a crisis. Kaulder is unreliable, does not speak Spanish, has no survival skills or even instincts, and is in every way an impediment. Why does he exist? Because there needed to be a second character for Samantha to talk to? They barely talk. It is a bad sign indeed when one spends the entire movie openly yearning for the lead character’s violent death, as one does with Kaulder. (Spoiler alert: He lives, tragically).
Monsters has some engaging moments when Samantha interacts with the locals (mostly played by non-actors improvising), because she can, while Kaulder stands around repeating, “What did he/she say?” ad nauseam. Writer-director Edwards also photographed (not terribly well) and did the special effects (fairly well); his ambition is admirable, and the process by which he made the movie on limited resources—barely over a million dollars—is interesting. The movie, however, is quite bad, and takes entirely too long to make a fairly obvious political statement that has been (and hopefully, will be) made better. Next time, a story would be nice.