! = recommended
* = all-ages
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In the opening minutes of Monsters, the plot's major backstory points are swiftly covered. Some years ago NASA detected alien life outside of earth. A ship bearing samples was on the way back for study when it crashed in Mexico. In an example of space age imperialism, within a few years, new creatures started appearing on the scene. The Mexican and US military have been fighting a holding action against these new beings ever since.
Keeping them quarantined (supposedly) within Mexico, held back by military power and a tremendous border wall; it seems the era of MTV Spring Break Cancun is over. Onto this new world order, the filmmakers have grafted a more classic relationship/road movie, bringing a little bit of something for everyone.
Sam (Whitney Able) is in Mexico when an attack by one of the aliens leaves her injured, though still adorable. She needs to get out of the country before the government shuts down the borders in anticipation of alien migration season. Enter Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photographer on the payroll of Sam's wealthy publisher father. Seriously against his wishes, he's assigned to take her out of the country. A bit of a dufus (which shows through in several ways ,not the least of which, he somehow feels himself a superior guide although he's the only one of the two who doesn't speak Spanish). Their journey, both physical and personal, forms the remainder of the story.
There are monsters out there - the film's consistently torqued up tension rarely lets you forget that. But to my eye, it's the relationship drama that just happens to be set in the midst of an accidental alien invasion that makes the film memorable. The two actors have solid chemistry and they sell the universe in which the film is set.
If I didn't know better, I'd think the entire piece was an elaborate Hollywood exercise calibrated to bring in couples with some sci-fi/action for one and a romantic drama for the other. In that and other ways Monsters seems to be about confounding expectations. Are you watching:
(a) an ultra low budget (reportedly $15k) indy sci-fi picture about aliens run amok in Mexico?
(b) a relationship drama of two people finding each other on an extended road trip?
(c) an allegory of US/Mexican relations
(d) just the latest example of hot cephalopod on cephalopod action to come out of Hollywood this year?
(e) all of the above
Regardless, it was a fun ride that managed to push both my tension-packed thriller and relationship drama buttons in a purely positive sense. That's not to say on reflection there aren't some flaws, but the overall effect seems likely appeal to a fairly broad audience. Just so long as one's expectations aren't for more hardcore sci-fi genre fare.
In some ways, the two most recent and obvious comparisons for this film are District 9 and Cloverfield. It's like District 9 in the sense that it shows that a modest budget with a solid plan can make compelling cinema (oh, and also of course plays with the space aliens vs. refugee comparison). And it did remind me in some ways of Cloverfield - though in a 180 degrees less terrible sense.