Young love, tired old tale
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, November 5, 2010
"Monsters" is no ordinary horror film. If it were, it might be a bit better than it is. As the movie stands, it's a less-than-compelling relationship drama, with aliens.
Set in the near future, after NASA probes have returned from outer space carrying the larvae of giant squid-like creatures - which having grown to full size have been quarantined in an "infected zone" extending across the U.S.-Mexico border - the low-budget film has only superficial similarities to "District 9." Which means there's just the vaguest whiff of immigration politics.
Thankfully, the movie is not heavy-handed on that score, though you might catch a glimpse or two of a sign reading, in Spanish, "Who are the monsters?" It's a reference, of course, to the question of whether the American military response to the creatures is worse than the infestation.
But back to the movie. There's precious little discussion of anything related to our mistreatment of these "illegal aliens," who have been walled off south of the border behind an enormous fence. You leave them alone, and they'll leave you alone, as someone says. Most of the film concerns the escape efforts of Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist on assignment in Mexico, and Sam Wynden (Whitney Able), a tourist and the daughter of Andrew's boss, who has peremptorily ordered his employee to drop everything and escort his little girl back home.
As Sam and Kaulder (as they call each other) wend their way through the infected zone, first by boat, then pickup and finally on foot, the bulk of the film's energy is devoted not to dodging tentacled monsters - though there are some nicely creepy bits of that, reminiscent of "Jurassic Park" - but on the protagonists' budding romance.
Yes, romance. So far, so familiar.
He's a hard-boiled commitment-phobe - or is he just a softie looking for the right woman? - and she's about to be married to a guy who's so obviously wrong for her that when she hocks her engagement ring in an attempt to buy safe passage, it feels like a weight has been lifted off your own finger. As Kaulder discovers his missing heart, and Sam discovers her knight in shining armor, the dynamic is so dully predictable that you may find yourself wishing that something would eat them.
But the movie, despite its name, isn't really about monsters. We barely even see one for the longest time, except on a grainy, greenish television screen, or in the murky, flashlit dark of a moonless night. Oddly, it has the effect of making them seem less, not more, scary.
And maybe that's the point. Sam and Kaulder don't seem all that terrified themselves.
The question that's foremost in their minds isn't whether they'll make it out alive, but whether they'll ever hook up. But the real question is neither of those. It's: When will this thing be over?
Contains brief obscenity, a scene of heavy drinking, sexual themes, corpses and other frightening imagery and violence. In English and Spanish with English subtitles.