A movie named "Monsters" must contain monsters. But in its breathtaking final scene, we realize they should not be called Monsters but perhaps simply Beings.
Let a filmmaker dare to imagine a truly alien lifeform and it's "Monsters", a rather special achievement. It's based on characters, relationships, fear of letting go of what we have, of breaking lose, and although the movie's special effects are important, it's not about special effects.
The story, set some years in the future, explains that a probe was sent to Europa to search for life. On its return, it crash-landed in Mexico and whatever was on board found the conditions here suitable. The Beings have occupied a wide swath of northern Mexico, known as the Infected Zone, and travel through it is forbidden. A massive wall has been constructed to keep the creatures out of the United States, and Air Force planes fire missiles at them.
There's an obvious parallel with the current border situation between the two countries and the controversy over undocumented aliens. And another one with recent wars, where expensive and advanced warfare techniques are used to try to annihilate everything that is unknown. A process of demonization of what is unknown is going on, but are these beings actually a threat?
The journey takes us through wastelands of devastation but a brief comment, almost a throwaway line, suggests that the creatures grow agitated when attacked. Many a creature does. There isn't a single shot on camera of a Being actually assaulting anything without provocation.
We see evidence of the aliens. We hear their mournful sounds. We see them unclearly in night vision images on television news. Andrew and Samantha, the main characters, like many a movie couple before them gradually get close as they share the journey. But theirs is not a conventional romance. It's more about learning to see another person.
"Monsters" was written and directed by Gareth Edwards who also created all the special effects. He shot on location. All of the characters, except the leads, are played by locals. They're untrained, which means they're all the more convincing. Edwards had a minuscule budget, but let's say he knew how to spend it.
"Monsters" holds our attention ever more deeply than we realize. We expect that, sooner or later, we'll get a good look at the aliens close up. When we do, it's not a disappointment. They're ugly and uncannily beautiful, we've never seen anything like them, and their motives are made clear in a sequence combining uncommon suspense and uncanny poetry.
Edwards is brilliant at evoking the awe and beauty he has been building toward, and at last we fully realize the film's ambitious arc. I think the lesson may be: Monsters are in the eye of the beholder.
Sometimes an unknown "evil" might be better than a known "good". After you meet a "Monster", you might not want to go home...
A Mind full of Ideas