Gareth Edwards’ Monstrous Realism

Monsters explores the frontier of Americans’ privileges and presumptions.

Michael Atkinson

<i>Waltz with Bashir</i> explores nightmares of the Israeli-condoned, 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

It’s certainly easy to pick your favorite political film of last year – the one that most furiously sings out how you see the world and makes the truth clear to those whom you presume require such enlightenment – from among the award-winning documentaries (like Alex Gibney’s Client 9 and Casino Jack) and Hollywood re-enactments (like Fair Game, starring Sean Penn). But I’d make a claim for Gareth Edwards’ Monsters, underseen in theaters and new to DVD, as the best American film about our political reality of 2010.

It’s science fiction. That shouldn’t seem odd; although for years Hollywood treated science fiction films as a futuristic hybrid of thrillers or adventure tales, by the 1960s filmmakers caught up with the fiction trade and began seeing the genre as a vehicle for ideas.

Metaphoric speculation has been the juice in the fruit ever since – disquieting visions and thorny symbologies considering the present, expressed as hellacious ordeals set in the dreaded days to come. Although the genre has long been typified as the geekier twin of horror films, which are by definition irrational, sci-fi can be as analytical as epistemological scholarship. In fact, because it’s ultimately about the here and now, sci-fi’s lyrical thrust is more akin to satire, a hyperbolic parallel universe in which our follies and fears are tied to the table and tortured. (Twilight would never be construed as science fiction, but Network could be.) The cold equations of sci-fi opt for worst-case scenario what-ifs rather than satire’s wit and mockery, but their strategies are kissing cousins.

When science fiction picks a fight with politics, we usually end up with a dystopia. But Monsters is different, a five-minutes-into-the-future tale that behaves less like a torpedo aimed at state power than a reconnaissance mission exploring the frontier of our own privileges and presumptions. That is, there is no easily-marked villain. Edwards suggestively regards the genre’s old traditions in the title of his film, and his sense of irony never lets up. The opening informs us that, thanks to the landing of a corrupted space probe, half of Mexico has now been infested with giant aliens (they look like silo-sized octopi walking on their tentacles) and is therefore officially quarantined. We enter south of the forbidden zone, where a photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) is sent by his magazine to escort the publishing magnate’s daughter (Whitney Able) to a safe passage north through the Gulf, past The Wall that now separates Mexico from the United States. Of course, mishaps and corruption pile up, and the mismatched couple is forced to buy their way upriver through the quarantined region itself.

Part of the wonder of Monsters is inherent in its means of production. Edwards, a first-time director with years of digital effects experience, had an ingenious plan: Take his two actors into Mexico and Central America with just two cameramen, shooting on off the shelf” HD video, and incorporate the real terrain and locals, most of whom thought they were being included in a documentary. (Werner Herzog, with only one science fiction meta-film – The Wild Blue Yonder – under his belt, would surely approve.) Afterward, Edwards seamlessly added in wrecked planes and bombed buildings (some of which were real leftovers from war and neglect), as well as aliens and infrastructural ephemera – signs, hazmat logos, TV news reports, cartoons, etc. When the small crew found real traffic, accidents, ruins or helicopters, they used them. 

McNairy and Able, a couple in real life, function as our eyes and red-alert barometers, and they are never less than genuine. The upshot is hypnotically convincing, a new kind of unnerving neo-realism, where anything at all can be made to look real and where the future looks and feels like yesterday’s handheld on-location indie film.

Monsters is decidedly anti-gross-out (unlike the more overtly satiric District 9 released in 2009), and distinctly ruminative. It can afford to be, with the front-loaded dynamic Edwards created, concisely evoking the issues of immigration and post-imperialism in tangible form (the looming, endless Wall separating Mexico and the United States may be Edwards’ most daunting visual), while functioning as a kind of sociopolitical Rorschach blot. After all, the alien creatures – who are revealed to be as capable of homicidal mayhem and tenderness as any wild animalMonstersaren’t symbolic avatars of Mexican immigrants per se, Wall or no Wall. Rather, they function as objects of xenophobic circumstance, helping (along with the war waged against them) to devastate the landscape as any political conflict would do, and to portray a new world order” that remakes the Third World into a version of the lawless jungle we Americans offhandedly imagine waiting in line at Starbucks for our Costa Rica Tarrazu.

There’s a substantial ambivalence at work in Monsters, but being American, and all that implies, is what the film is taking on: our anxious obsession with control, our fear of natural forces and hungers, our shrugging disregard for non-white citizens living below the 30th parallel, our secret dread about how fragile our eminence actually is in the face of some unmitigatable chaos. Edwards’ use of Latin American reality as he found it pounds the point home at every bend in the river. I don’t know how much of what we see in the film was found,” but I wouldn’t be surprised if passages took advantage of detritus left behind from the Guatemalan Civil War of the 80s and 90s; of the standing military presence on the disputed border between Guatemala and Belize; and of the rampant strife, police action and rebel conflicts in Mexico. Simply imagining it all, a mere taste of what the U.S.-abetted subcontinent had to offer in the last three decades, as an inexplicable alien corruption at which we can only stare gape-mouthed is a bitter satiric flourish worthy of Kafka, John Brunner and José Saramago.

The images do the work in Monsters, not expository dialogue. In the meantime Edwards has snuck in a believable love story and a thoroughly engaged sense of place (so rare in modern American movies), all on the thinnest of paper-route budgets. 

Watching Monsters, I felt closer to the pith of the American bone than I had looking at dozens of truth-telling docs and faddish, filmic moneymakers.

Michael Atkinson is a film reviewer for In These Times. He has written or edited many books, including Exile Cinema: Filmmakers at Work Beyond Hollywood (2008) and the mystery novels Hemingway Deadlights (2009) and Hemingway Cutthroat (2010). He blogs at Zero For Conduct.
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