Giant land octopuses from space have invaded Mexico, and the U.S. has erected a great wall at its border to keep those Latin aliens out. What starts as a great B-movie premise, unfortunately, degenerates into clueless moralism. Spoilers below.
We've been excited about Monsters ever since it started making the rounds at film festivals because the monsters look ridiculously cool and the message - at least in trailers - felt like edgy commentary on border politics. The monsters live up to their potential. But the commentary doesn't.
It's the story of a photojournalist, Kaulder, sent to Mexico to shoot pictures of the monsters, who started rampaging shortly after a spacecraft crashed to Earth. He's apparently been told by his editor that pictures of people killed by monsters are worth thousands of dollars, but pictures of happy children are worth nothing. See how evil corporate media can be? They only want to pay for suffering!
But it's we who are suffering when Kaulder's boss tells him that his new assignment is to help his strangely incompetent daughter Sam leave Mexico before the border closes for monster season. Even though Sam's dad - the evil editor who spends millions on pictures of dead people - has a ton of money, apparently the only way Sam can get out is to scrounge up some cash and bribe her way into a boat ride. Also, why does the fully-adult Sam, who is fluent in Spanish (unlike Kaulder) need some photographer's help to get out of Mexico in the first place? This is just the first of many, many plotholes that make this film agonizing to watch.
Of course there are various weird shenanigans that leave the two penniless (again - where is Daddy Mediabucks?) and they have to resort to walking home with some cheap guides. This conveniently takes them through the Mexican countryside - riddled with the truly awesome monsters - and gives Kaulder and Sam the chance to act like awful parodies of white liberals who marvel at how terribly the Mexican people are treated by the evil US military. It's as if the military were treating Mexicans like . . . monsters!
There is actually a scene where Kaulder remarks in a way that is supposed to be very deep that the wall between the US and Mexico looks really different from the south side. Nice insight, dude.
What's depressing is that buried under all this clumsy preaching are the bones of a great monster movie. The monsters when we see them are truly terrifying, and the effects are fantastic. When we discover the secret of why the monsters are so pissed, director Gareth Edwards successfully makes them sympathetic - more like humpback whales than Cthulhu. And the visuals in the film are simply stunning. The landscape glows with monster light, and the Mexican countryside is lush and beautiful. The wall itself is massive and forbidding.
If only these characters talked less and we got more incredible scenes of violence and its repercussions on both sides of the border. Instead, we are forced to follow Kaulder and Sam through a series of insultingly plotholed adventures that add up to a film that's just too simplistic to be successful as an allegory. And unfortunately it's too allegorical to be a creature feature.
Edwards has promise as a filmmaker - I think we may see great things form him eventually. But Monsters - out today on video-on-demand and later this month in US theaters - is a disappointment.