Mexican Science Fiction, Part IV: Monsters

“A great science fiction detective story” – Ian Watson, author of The Universal Machine

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The previous installments of this series are:

Mexican Science Fiction, Part I: The Double Identity of the Movie 2033

Mexican Science Fiction, Part II: Death Comes Calling One Last Time

Mexican Science Fiction, Part III: Three Messages and a Warning

The movies I’ve looked at previously have been Mexican productions.

Monsters (2010) is a U.K. production, but it was shot on location in Mexico and, like the other movies discussed in this series, its subject is a science-fictional Mexico.

This is a Matryoshka doll of a movie, with a tale of alien invasion wrapped around a metaphor for “aliens” from Mexico who cross the border into the U.S., which is in turn a cocoon for the love story that lies at the heart of the film.

Monsters Poster

Monsters Poster

Although, honestly, that makes it sound like a lot less fun that it is. Still, it’s not watching-Gojira-crush-Tokyo fun. It’s more elegiac, lie-back-and-enjoy-the-details-of-the-ambiance fun.

The premise is straightforward and much of the backstory is laid out succinctly in title cards that open the movie:

Six years ago… NASA discovered the possibility of alien life within our solar system. A space probe was launched to collect samples, but broke up during re-entry over Mexico. Soon after new life forms began to appear and half the country was quarantined as an INFECTED ZONE.

Today… The Mexican & US military still struggle to contain ‘the creatures’…

The “half the country” that’s infected is a large swath of northern Mexico, along the border with the U.S.–a border that is now guarded by a huge, apparently impregnable wall to keep the aliens on the southern side of the border.

Kaulder examines a map of the infected zone in a still from Monsters

Kaulder examines a map of the infected zone in a still from Monsters

Against this backdrop, a simple story plays out.

Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is a cynical photographer who documents the destruction caused by the monsters, always hoping for the money shot of a child killed by the aliens, which will net him a cool $50,000.00 from his heartless boss.

Sam Wynden (Whitney Able) is a rich girl who’s in Mexico doing good works when she’s injured (in a very modest way) during an American air-strike against the behemoths from outer space.

Kaulder’s heartless boss is also Wynden’s doting dad. He orders Kaulder in no uncertain terms to get his daughter safely home, meaning that they must either circumvent or traverse the infected zone.

Romeo and Juliet with Aliens

Romeo and Juliet with Aliens

They’re all set to take the first, safer option courtesy of a mercenary ferry operator, whom they’ve paid $5,000.00 to get to the U.S. Then Kaulder’s bad behaviour costs Wynden her passport–stolen in the night–so they have no choice but to hire the Space Invaders version of a coyote to smuggle them through the danger zone on land.

If you’re expecting a smash-em-up you’ll be disappointed (as many viewers have been).

On the other hand, if you’re into the atmosphere and the slow build of a love story set against the backdrop of an alien-infested near-future Mexico, you’ll likely be pleased and a little charmed (as many other viewers have been).

The latter way of viewing the movie has garnered it praise–and in some instances raves–from such folks as Roger Ebert, Salon, and The Village Voice.

I enjoyed Monsters a lot, and I mostly give it a thumbs-up, but I do have a complaint or two. Mostly two.

First, Scoot McNairy’s Kaulder isn’t bad. He’s reminsiscent of (though far less intense than) a Salvador-era James Woods. But seriously: if you’re going to set the movie in Mexico, couldn’t the photographer have been a local stringer? There are only two real characters in the whole movie (apart from the aliens) and both are white Americans (using that word colloquially), which is more than a little gauche.

Besides, if the photographer had been Mexican, it might have ramped up his conflicted feelings about what he does for a living. It’s one thing for a gringo photographer to be parachuted in to photograph dead Mexicans for a U.S. publication. It’s quite another for a Mexican to collect a paycheque for the same job and then go home to his family and friends and have to explain himself. Photographing dead Mexican kids for money is a lot more poignant when your kids are Mexican and tomorrow it could be them who die.

As for Wynden, she’s an awfully slight character. I don’t blame Whitney Able for that–she just isn’t given much to do apart from look fetching and be imperiled.

If McNairy’s character puts me in mind of James Woods in days gone by, Wynden’s reminds me of 1970s vintage Farrah Fawcett back when she was eye candy. I’m thinking of things like Logan’s Run and the original Charlie’s Angels, before Fawcett got some clout and started taking very different roles (like the battered wife who fights back, pioneering photographer Margaret Bourke-White, and Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld).

Wynden could have been just as alluring to Kaulder while also having some character in her character. She seems ambivalent about her father and not very comitted to her upcoming marriage–but that’s about it. We have no idea why, or what she’s thinking.

I don’t need her to start rattling on about it at length, but without any reason to be dissatisfied, the plot mechanics get a little transparent. She’s not committed to her marriage because… well, because that makes Kaulder tempting and that moves the story forward, period.

monsters

On the whole, though, this is an interesting and enjoyable watch as long as you don’t go in expecting Cloverfield.

Side note: much of the film was improvised, both by the leads and by the local non-actors who played the secondary roles. And some of the secondary folks–like the ferryboat guy–are very well done. Take a look at the third embedded video below for a featurette that documents this aspect of the film.

Monsters Trailer

Monsters Featurette

Monsters Improvisation Featurette

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