Smoke, Mirrors and Gareth Edwards’ Monsters

22 Jan

What is Ultimately Reel?

With a name like Monsters, Gareth Edwards has made a very intelligent gamble. Audiences viewing his work might leave the theater puzzled, because quite simply the film’s monster-aliens are not in any sense of the conventional ‘stock.’

At this point, if you are thinking about Godzilla clawing his way around Tokyo with Mothra, or King Kong climbing the phallic skyline of New York, you might be disappointed with Edwards’ directorial debut.

But that’s not to say that Monsters has no, well, monsters. It’s hard to forget the images of giant amphibian spider-squid aliens that haunt the film. However, as film critic Roger Ebert is quick to point out, these ‘monsters’ are “totally alien” from our expectations.

Basically, Monsters is a film about ‘monsters.’ I know it sounds dumb and redundant to be saying that. But really, I think Edwards is a very smart fella and that his film is an absolutely brilliant critique of the state of our cinema. Effectively, Monsters asks of its audience to question the parameters to which we label and construct what is a ‘monster.’

If you’ve not watched the film, very quickly Monsters is set in the near future of 2015 when aliens have been inhabiting the area between Mexico and the United States for the past six years (which if you do your math, they should have been living with us by now). So, it’s a film that starts off with the existing reality of aliens having already landed on our shores – instead of the typical xenophobic horror we experience with films like Independence Day when the terror is in the first encounter of aliens landing.

Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) is a photojournalist trying to cash in with a winning photo of these aliens and to document the effects of their invasion on the lives of those living close to the “infected areas.” However, his plans take a detour when he is tasked to escort his publisher’s daughter Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) back to the States. Both of them buy exclusive tickets back, allowing them to route around the “infected areas.” However, Andrew loses their passports and they have to head straight through the troubled spots.

That’s basically the driving plot.

The monsters/aliens in the film, however, do not go all rabid and stuff unless provoked by the chemical warfare used by the American fighter jets. Taken allegorically, Monsters can be read as a political commentary on American military campaigns and American xenophobia. There is even a scene when Andrew says, “Sometimes we need to look at America from the outside” when the couple is looking at the the giant edifice of the divider-wall that separates Mexico and the United States.

Also, Andrew works for a publisher called “New World” which is a play on the history concerning America and acts as a dose of postcolonial commentary. When European settlers arrived on the shores of America looking for a “new world” to live in, they were probably seen as ‘aliens’ themselves to the natives. Yet, natives were killed or driven out of their land for the white settlers to build their own colonies. There is even a humorous reference to (Hernan) Cortes in the film’s dialogue that really tells you about the little ironies of our alien franchise.

Rather than merely looking at it from the perspectives of geopolitics and postcolonialism, we could always read this as a question of borders and boundaries erected. From the time when we’ve first created maps to categorize spaces, what we’ve managed to build are walls around ourselves. It’s not simply a case of drawing a line on the ground to say this belongs to me, and that to you. But rather we’ve forced certain possibilities out of our imagination. And one of them is the monster/human divide.

What makes one a ‘monster’ and the other its slayer. What makes one the colonial power and the other the barbarian at the gates. These questions seem to be a case of our imagination that, really, Monsters is trying to deconstruct.

I’ve always loved Aijaz Ahmad’s argument of literary genres: Genres are “institutions” that govern the rules and codes for production. In that manner, genre conventions are in a way the ‘rules of the game’ to put it loosely.

And in Edwards’ Monsters, genre conventions are destabilized. Think about it.

True, it’s got monsters in it. But not of the typical sort. It even attempts to undercut the idea of ‘monsters’ by presenting a beautiful mating ritual between the aliens by paralleling that to the romance between the couple. In the background, two aliens make mating calls to one another and approach each other cautiously in a brief exchange before the male heads back into the cities and the female into the forest presumably to lay her eggs/spores. It is of a chance encounter – but so is the romance between Andrew and Samantha. So where’s the separation?

Granted, Monsters does not prostitute itself to Hollywood conventions by having their leads conclude their love affair in horizontal positions. But in that poignant moment (helped by the beautiful symphony of mating calls), what is immortalized is the parallels between the aliens’ chance encounters and that of the leads’ brief romance. Moreover, the film questions the divider between fiction and reality by placing artificial romantic notions served up by movies over the years under the spotlight. So the typical romance of Hollywood (best summed up by the James Bond franchise) is replaced with a bittersweet moment of unfulfilled promises that feature so heavily in the works of Haruki Murakami and the films of Wong Kar-Wai.

The film is tagged as a “sci-fi thriller/horror.” And true enough, it provides an adequate amount of thrills and chills. Edwards worked around his production cost of US$ 15 000 by focusing on sound to create haunting mindscapes rather than on the visuals. But the most important moment is the sequence in which Monsters parodies itself.

In the scene at the facility, having build up tension with the camera frantically looking around for signs of aliens after a bone-chilling wail is heard, the camera finds the image of a cow. Holy cow! Its bovine humour underlines the fact that the film understand its ‘rules’ and that it knows the audience does too, and that it seeks to be more terrifying by destabilizing that convention.

You always get the sense of fear and dread in anticipation, but somehow that culminating product never really arrives. To me, that is Edwards’ critical self-commentary on the whole ‘monster’ genre. The film is called Monsters and in a sense, it really is a ‘monster’ when it aims to destroy the conventions we have built up over the years of cinema history.

There is even a better example of its metafictional commentary: In the scene where Samantha is holed up in the gas station, we are introduced to the alien tentacles creeping its way towards Samantha. At that moment, the prediction seems to be that they will be heading for Samantha. But they don’t. Instead, the tentacles reach out to the tv set that is broadcasting images of the aliens themselves. Once contact is made between the screen and the tentacles, the tentacles glow ever so slightly and seem to register a pulse – as if they were feeding on their own images. A pun on ‘live feed.’

But more importantly, Monsters seems to be making a point about its own self-reflexivity (again, intensifying its genre-defying stance). The film feeds on its own image: it is called “Monsters” when it is also a monster cannabalizing on its own conventions and rules. It plays a game of smoke and mirrors, deceiving us into thinking about all that we’ve learnt from monster-films, turn them around and aims the camera right back at us.

Why? Because whatever we’ve learn from the movies form our imagination of our world/realities. And in an industry dominated by Hollywood, Monsters is an attempt to climb the Empire State Building and perhaps to tear it down as well. We’ve become monsters ourselves when we create ‘monsters’ out of our own imagination – much like Shelley’s social commentary in Frankenstein.

So if you’d asked me again what is Monsters really about, it is about monsters and perhaps the screen becomes a mirror.  We’ve always have stories as the basis of communities. Sometimes we create fiction to get a hint of truth and reality. But sometimes, we’ve simply traded reality for fiction – especially about oursevles.

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