It's different looking into America from outside...
With its story of a photographer and his boss' daughter forced to travel across a Mexico which has been sealed behind giant walls because it is 'infected' by aliens, Gareth Edwards' film Monsters falls into that sub-category of science fiction and horror cinema that sees film-makers using the genre to explore more socially relevant issues. In this instance, the film is, on an allegorical level, about the experiences of immigrants trying to enter America from Mexico. It's the latest entry in a rich tradition that includes recent films like District 9 and Cloverfield - both of which it has been compared to - and stretches back through the films of George A. Romero, the various incarnations of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers, all the way to Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
This idea is established fairly early when Sam (Whitney Able) is forced to trade her engagement ring in exchange for an escort through The Infected Zone, a huge section of Mexico hundreds of miles across which is roamed by the creatures; a species of squids the size of cathedrals which are shown wreaking terrible destruction on everything they meet. It's not hard to see someone giving up something that has both sentimental and monetary value in order to pay for transport having real world parallels, and nor is it hard to see the similarities between Sam and Andrew's (Scoot McNairy) journey across rivers and through jungles with armed escorts and human traffickers trying to get people across borders in search of a better life.
However, like the films mentioned above, Monsters may invite this kind of interpretation but it does not demand it. It is perfectly possible to watch the film as an exciting, beautifully shot and touching film about two people setting out on a dangerous journey together and the experiences they have along the way which draw them closer together. To quote Freud, sometimes a many-tentacled Lovecraftian horror is just a many-tentacled Lovecraftian horror.
It's to Edwards' credit that the film looks as wonderful as it does. The film was made for no more than $200,000 and looks like it cost one hundred times that. The shots of South American cities and landscapes are beautiful and poetic, and a sequence in which Sam and Andrew travel by boat captures the same woozy hallucinatory vibe as Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God. (I have no idea if that was an intentional reference, but when combined with one shot of a steam boat caught in some trees which seems to reference Fitzcarraldo it suggests that Edwards is up on his Herzog.) He has a slightly tougher time making the action sequences feel fresh, and some of them seem to be retreads of scenes in Jurassic Park, but for the most part the film relies on silence punctuated by the moans and crashes of the creatures' movements to create an atmosphere of dread and terror that is hugely effective.
The creatures themselves, on the few occasions when Edward shows them to us, are fantastic creations which seem wholly alien whilst also organic and real. There's an intoxicating mixture of beauty and horror to the way in which they walk across the countryside, tentacles wafting in the breeze. They also make it unacceptable for any film with a budget in excess of $100 million dollars to have sub-standard CGI. If Gareth Edwards can make effects this good on his own in his living room, then Hollywood pictures have no excuse for shoddy work.
Monsters is a film which work both metaphorically and viscerally, and it is an intelligent, original piece of independent film-making which will hopefully make similarly ambitious and talented directors realise that we have reached a point where anyone can make a visually impressive, smart film without having to wait for Hollywood to put up the cash.