Thursday, August 12, 2010

Who are the monsters?

I recently saw a festival hit called “Monsters” that Magnet will be distributing in October. It’s a semi-real aliens-attack film comparable to “Cloverfield” (in that the monsters are convincing low-fi effects both practical and CGI) and “District 9” (aliens have come to an impoverished world). You come for the “Cloverfield” I suppose, and stay for, or leave with, the political “District 9” dimension. I had to have pause in this case: with the glut of science fiction over the past couple of years, has some of it tried to hew too close to real life and made itself irrelevant? Is my sudden unease with these films a reflection of their proliferation into the mainstream, or a newfound cinematic social awareness?

To backtrack, “Monsters” is the story of a photojournalist who is assigned to head into Central America to procure his boss’s lovely young daughter. However, the last six years in Mexico have been fraught with violence committed by tentacled alien beasts who arrived via space probe and have caused the deaths of thousands, and as such is considered an “infected zone.” The photographer and his companion, who he’s become quite smitten with, have to journey through the infected zone in order to reach safety at the US border. Yes, they are both white people.

What I found most troubling about the movie was the low-fi aesthetic. This was apparently a very low-budget film shot with a skeleton crew, but it looks more than professional, as the director , Gareth Edwards, is also apparently a talented visual effects man. But to keep the budget down, he eschewed the Roland Emmerich approach of giant CGI’d destruction sites and instead had his characters pass through a number of actually-destroyed locations. Though there were a few nip-tuck CGI enhancements, these locations were unmistakably actual scenes of horrific tragedy. One ghost town, clearly the place where a terrible natural disaster (a hurricane?) had demolished and hollowed-out all the homes, was now repurposed to be victims of a monster invasion.

I’m still unpacking the film in my head, though it doesn’t seem to be as loaded as “District 9.” Though I use that comparison because of the focus on damaged lower-class lifestyle, vaguely similar alien attack story, and low budget, but both seem to be very different. When the still-troubling “District 9” takes time out for unabashed violent spectacle, “Monsters” is actually a somber affair. While we worry about the fate of our protagonists, the idea is that the creatures have already committed their worst atrocities. The action is centered around these two young, photogenic would-be lovers, but the locations they pass through might as well be an extended wake. With the how’s and why’s of the alien invasion kept in the dark, and the backstories of our characters sparsely dispensed with (she keeps itching at a bandaged wound that never becomes a plot point, he has a kid back at home we never see or hear), it’s impossible to ignore your own immediate emotions at the funeral dirge that represents half of the film.

The argument to be made here is that one has a remarkable assemblage of potential shooting locations in Mexico and Central America (and, according to the credits, Texas). Now, what are your reasons to use them? Terrifying, real, immediate locations without the need for art direction that suit the story. And your reasons not to use them? I couldn’t divorce myself from what was not only an intentional mirroring of real-life tragedies (a realistic, or possibly real, mass grave of unidentified skulls certainly gives pause), but also that some of these places were left as such to remember those lost, and not to service a skimpy sci-fi picture with a questionable allegory.

I’m still trying to figure out exactly what the point was of “Monsters,” which depicts an invisible/indifferent government watching these beasts tear apart Mexico. Are these aliens representative of the problems tearing through Mexico causing recent mass exoduses, with the border quarantining the country meant to be the US’s diffident response to any non-centralized disaster? Is it really the story of two beautiful white people trying to escape horrible disasters without any politics or social awareness? When the characters have to salvage goods from a migrant family they just watched die at the tendrils of the beast, should I not feel more unease than I already do?

It’s hard to ignore that, in the spirit of yesteryear’s exploitation films, Edwards wanted to tell this story and merely knew of a few great locations in Mexico and Texas, ignoring the sociological weight of the matter. But in another way, it’s possible he considers himself not unlike the lead character, a photojournalist amongst the ruins preserving these moments for posterity. And I can’t be entirely negative about the film, and these are powerful images that most of us should see, but isn’t the more compelling story what actually happened, where we don’t have to rely on an unstoppable plot device to cause further devastation? I found myself drawn more to these ghostly empty hotels and houses than I did to the people on-screen.

Another recent example, albeit in a different vein, can be seen in the trailer for a new sci-fi picture called “Skyline.” It’s another alien invasion flick, one where there is definitely an attack happening on a global scale, though for budgetary purposes the focus is appropriately intimate. It’s another film made independently by effects wizards, in this case the Strouse brothers who previously directed “Aliens Vs. Predator: Requiem,” and it learns heavily on the it-could-happen-to-you conceit of many of these films, though like “Cloverfield” is centralized in a large city.

The teaser that’s been released is more of the money shot variety, the kind of quick-tease with footage that probably won’t make it into the final film, but it does it’s shock-job admirably. The footage begins by piggybacking off quotes from none other than Stephen Hawking, who recently spoke of what some consider the serious possibility that one day we would encounter beings from another planet. Dan Rather’s baritone delivers a line from Hawking about how aliens would treat us the way Columbus and his fellow travelers treated the Native Americans, that it “did not go well for the Native Americans.”

A cut to black follows, before we see a number of spaceships poised above a big city, beginning to suck humans out of building And maybe there’s something off about this, but I’m wondering, ok, marauding aliens are horrifying, but why don’t we talk about what Columbus did to the Native Americans? It’s funny that this is something a large portion of schools don’t teach, and here it’s being used as accepted fact to lead into a “now we’re the minority!” scare tactic to sell a sci-fi thriller. While the image of human detritus being sucked into a spaceship is an arresting image, the preceding discussion makes me wish I were seeing something about the questionable relations between the English and the Native Americans during colonization? Why does that immediately seem as not only a more responsible and mature subject matter, but one that’s also more dramatically compelling and therefore entertaining?

I take all this back if the Native Americans turn out to be piloting the spaceships.

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