This was a rewatch for me. I didn't fall for MONSTERS the first time around. It had been hyped to infinity as a game-changing genre film, plus it is named MONSTERS, and so I was expecting a film full of monsters. The movie's a lot more sly than all that would suggest, though. The monsters are there, intermittently, but they get far less screen time than their human costars. These are modest monsters, barely glimpsed, like wives on a harem balcony.
Listen: a probe went to space after possible extraterrestrial life was detected. It burst before it could land and the pieces of it landed in Mexico. Subsequently, an array of large squid-like monsters began walking the land and northern Mexico was declared a quarantine zone. The U.S. finally builds that wall that John McCain kept screaming about. People in the afflicted areas keep calm and carry on, although their new lives as hosts to aliens color everything, even popular entertainment.
Against this backdrop, we have photographer Andrew, who is instructed to escort publishing scion's daughter Sam back to America. This is really what MONSTERS is about: these two people, believable but likable, trying to survive and get back to their less hazardous homeland.
Even if the story were total B-movie nonsense, MONSTERS would be worth watching for the visuals. Like I mentioned, the alien elements and related coping-with-random-bombings lead to some striking imagery. But we also get arresting visuals that basically arise from plain old poverty and necessity. Having a photographer as a lead gives the film a lot of opportunities to show off its cinematography and what we get is well-designed and well-done.
I love dogs who wear plastic bags and newspapers.
MONSTERS is also proficient at really nailing its setting and minor characters. Some of Mexico's pretty pitiable anyway, but the land of this film is just wrenchingly awful. We see a lot of children, who are essentially adapting to a very unnatural situation. We also see children who are less lucky, victims of the indiscriminate bombing sorties aimed at destroying the monsters. It's not really a stretch to see these scenes as metaphors for, say, drone attacks in the Middle East. Although MONSTERS isn't primarily a political film (don't worry!).
The desolation is mounted very well. The monsters aren't bad-looking, kind of Chthulhu-y, but my favorite parts of this visually are the bombed-out buildings and crumbling ruins.
Much like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, this wouldn't work at all if our two leads weren't convincing, but Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able give incredibly confident performances here. The whole film hinges on their relationship (and not in a chick-flick way, really) and they totally deliver. Not that surprised to learn that they're married in real life.
Why didn't I like this the first go-round? The problem was me and my expectations, I think. This is easily the most restrained and subtle "monster" movie ever, but, if approached with an open mind, it yields a ton of rewards. I'm very curious to see what director Gareth Edwards will do with his American GODZILLA project. Godzilla is almost a 180 from this film as far as atmosphere and mood, so here's hoping we can get that old Godzilla spectacle with the right amount of gas-mask realism. And dogs wrapped in newspapers.