Earlier in the year Patrick Hudson put forward the idea of Gap Year SF, named after the British tradition that school kids go off travelling for a year to see the world before going on to university. The aspiration is that you gain life skills by Peace Corp-style volunteering; the perception is that these life skills are more likely to involve having sex with other Westerners, learning rude words in foreign languages and doing a bit of minimum wage manual labour in Australia to make ends meet. As it relates to science fiction, the idea is that the United States has been the default future for so long that, as readers, we are predisposed to be attracted to SF set in the developing world. But, as with kids on a gap year, is our understanding and interest only likely to be superficial?
Sam (Whitney Able) is as close to a gap year student as you can be without actually being one. She is a trustafarian with a media mogul father and a honking great diamond engagement ring. We are never told why she is in San Jose but it is strongly implied she is in Central America to “find herself” before getting married, settling down and living the American Dream.
Then a disaster hits her hotel. She sprains her wrist and her father orders one of his locally based employees, Andrew (Scoot McNairy), to escort her home. Andrew is a photojournalist and he is as much an archetypal war photographer as Sam is Daddy’s little rich girl. He is cynical, reckless and arrogant (he hasn’t even bothered to learn Spanish). Above all, he has no interest in babysitting his boss’s daughter. So we are all set for a Hollywood romance, right?
Well, actually, we sort of are. But, of course, there is something I have been deliberately concealing, something signalled rather bluntly by the title of the film. That is to say, the disaster which struck Sam’s hotel wasn’t an earthquake or a terrorist attack but rather a giant space squid.
Six years previously a NASA probe brought back extraterrestrial life but unfortunately crashed on re-entry. This resulted in the infestation of vast swathes of northern Mexico and the southern United States with alien life forms and the subsequent coast-to-coast quarantine of a third of the continent. The whole of this area is a No Fly Zone so Andrew is unable to simply stick Sam on a plan. Instead they strike out for the nearest port using the traditional developing world combo of train, truck and shank’s pony. On arrival they find an equally traditional combo of corrupt officials, vibrant nightlife and passport stealing prostitutes. They miss the boat and – whoops – it is the last one for months because the alien mating season is just starting. Their only solution is for Sam to pawn her engagement ring and, in a nice piece of irony, employ coyotes to smuggle them over land through the quarantine zone and back into America (in a further irony, when they arrive at the border the anti-alien wall proves to be just as ineffectual as the current anti-Mexican fence). This all unfolds with a fluid naturalism which makes it possible to ignore the rather rudimentary construction of the plot.
So Monsters is fifty percent romance, fifty percent road movie. As they face travails both terrestrial and otherwise, Sam and Andrew grow closer to each other and start to question what is really of value in their lives. In her case, this means increasing doubts about whether she loves her fiancé; in his, increasing angst about the son he never sees and isn’t allowed to call him dad. The film ends with a genuinely beautiful moment of transcendence and emotional connection. Just like Gap Year students, they have found themselves by exposing themselves to an alien culture.
Monsters is the feature film debut of Gareth Edwards, a British documentary maker. It was written, filmed and directed by him, he provided the visual effects and reputedly brought the whole film in for half a million dollars. Now, film budgets always need to be taken with a pinch of salt but regardless, it is an impressive achievement. And, in many ways, Monsters is an impressive film. I just wish I could have liked it more.
Its strengths can be seen in the obvious comparison to Cloverfield, Matt Reeves’s schlocky 2008 re-imagining of Godzilla. Before are shot on hand-held cameras, although Edwards avoids the extreme contrivance of making the film an unedited, real time record. In both films, the monsters are usually glimpsed obliquely or in the dark. These two decisions were taken for financial rather artistic reasons but, although Reeve had fifty times Edwards’s budget, it is Edwards who has made the best of his constraints. He utilises the inherent intimacy of the shooting style to good effect in what is after al a small story but he also invites light, colour and scale onto the screen. More than this though, Monsters poses a refreshing question: what if NYC wasn’t the centre of the universe?
Once you’ve posed that question, you have to answer it though. Whilst it is always welcome to be reminded that cinematic science fiction can operate on another model to Hollywood, Monsters does not step too far from this path. The problem is not with its aesthetic but with its bones; Edwards is a Renaissance Man but I hope it is not uncharitable to suggest that he is one with a greater facility with images than words. If Hollywood (exemplified by the producer of Cloverfield, JJ Abrams) is habitually and accurately lambasted for preferring style to substance then where is substance to Monsters?
You may, for example, have detected a certain sarcasm to my introductory synopsis of the film. While I was aware of the many familiar elements of the film whilst watching it, it was only as I started to write this review that I became aware of just how many and how cumulative they are. Edwards is clearly striving for the universal but that is only a whisker away from the archetypal. Sam and Andrew are not clichés but they don’t rise far above them; they are characters we know well and whilst Able, McNairy and Edwards turn them into real people, they don’t turn them into particularly interesting characters. Their dilemmas are familiar, adolescent even. So too are their solutions.
Ultimately, I was reminded of Duncan Jones’s Moon: another recent debut by a British director, another quietly impressive science fiction film with a minimal cast, another rarity that was overly praised due to the paucity of similar films to act as any sort of benchmark. Isn’t the potential of science fiction cinema so much more than this though? Is the chasm between the boneheaded blockbuster behemoths and the slightly solipsistic small-budget films too wide to be bridged? Is there no room for an intelligent, exciting middle ground? I hope not and there is some evidence for this hope. Moon won the Hugo last year; I doubt Monsters will do the same and instead it will go to Inception, a blockbuster which, for all its undoubted flaws, had brains. Then there is next year’s Source Code, the next film from Jones and what (from the trailer) looks like an attempt to claim that very middle ground. Hopefully it will be artistically and commercially successful and this will be a progression that Edwards will also take. At the moment, Monsters is more of a calling card (one that is very likely to be successful). If someone hands him a bit more money and a good script I will be really exciting to see what he does with them.