Saturday, March 8, 2014

What I Think About When I Think About The Movie "Monsters"

I watched "Monsters" on Netflix last night, and it was a good, enjoyable movie. Here's the stuff it made me think about.

What's The Message, Here?

Did you ever get the feeling that a movie, or book, or whatever, is trying to make a point but you just don't get what that point is?

I'm not one of those people that insists that every story has to mean something or make a larger point about life.  Sometimes stories are just stories, there to be fun.  But as I watched the movie Monsters last night, I couldn't shake the feeling that it was trying to say something more than just "Hey, there's some monsters."

Monsters' premise is interesting: The setup (told in a few quick captions before the movie stars) is that a space probe sent to gather samples of what we thought might be alien life on another planet exploded over Mexico, and now, six years later, the Mexican and US governments (although throughout the movie Mexico's government seems pretty absent) have established a quarantine zone on the border of Mexico and the United States.  To enforce the quarantine, they've erected a wall that one character says "is the 7th wonder" (technically it would be the 8th, but okay).

So already, you're in pretty symbolic territory here, it would seem.  The choice of Mexico and the US seems like it has to be deliberate, right? As does the idea of building a wall to keep out the... aliens (Hey, I get it!).

The basic plot of the movie is: one of the monsters gets out of the quarantine zone, smashing up a hotel here tourists, including rich ones, improbably stay.  I have to point out that the improbability of this didn't hit me until just now.  It's not clear how close this hotel was to the "Infected Zone" (as they call it) but it was clear enough that a monster could get there from the Zone and smash things up before an airstrike blew the monster up.

One of the tourists is a rich girl whose dad owns a magazine that happens to have a photographer in the area, so the photographer gets told to escort the rich girl back to the ferry to get her to America, something he balks at because he'd rather stay in Mexico to try to get a picture of a kid killed by a monster. ("You know ho much your family pays for pictures of kids killed by monsters?" he asks the rich girl, while they are falling in love.)  It seems not to occur to him that another way to make a living is to save the boss' daughter, something he undertakes without, apparently, being given an expense account to do so.  (At one point, he has to pay $5,000 to a guy, and he seems to do this by using a check, rather than having the girl pay for it or simply calling his editor to get a voucher or anything.  The Mexican guy he pays $5,000 to appears happy with the check without even looking at the guy's ID.)

They get to the coast and are going to get her on the last ferry out of Mexico, or at least the last ferry out of that region? I wasn't totally clear on that, but either way, it's the last thing she can catch that would be safe, because the monsters don't go in the ocean.  Or they do. That's not clear, either.

This being a movie, you know she doesn't get on that ferry and he doesn't go back to his desperate life of trying to take a picture of a dead kid, right? Instead, they end up having to travel through the infected zone via some coyotes, and this, again, is where it seems to me that everything in this movie is Symbolism 101.  So far, we have had class warfare, dead kids, capitalism, and now we are literally smuggling people into America past vicious monsters in hopes of a better life.

In the infected zone, they learn a bit more about the monsters, like how they lay spores on trees and then return to the river ("and the ocean," one man says, so watch out, ferry!) and how they (the monsters) only get angry when the airplanes fly over and gas them, and they see the spores on the trees light up when lights are flashed at them, and then there's a monster attack, and ultimately everyone is killed except the photographer and the rich girl.

(The photographer gets his chance, then, finding a little girl laying in the road, having been killed by the monsters, but he simply covers her up with a poncho and refuses to take a picture.)

When they get back to the wall, they learn that the monsters have (gasp!) gotten into America, and there is an evacuated town and a crazy lady with a flag wrapped around her neck and an abandoned convenience store.

It seems to me that with that premise, it's almost intended to make a political statement, and the ending itself strengthens the idea that the movie was meant to be more than just a monster movie become more.  But, then, lots of good sci-fi seems to do that.  District 9 (another indie scifi movie that was great) had the same feel to it.  It's probably better that the movie didn't have a hamhanded message but simply pressed some buttons and brought up issues, as too strong a theme might have been distracting.  Sometimes, I guess, commentary doesn't have to take a stand, but can just be making you think about issues, and obviously the issues raised here have to do with classes and immigration and military responses to  perceived threats from others.  (In one great scene, the monsters bring that point home, I thought, by picking up a jet and then pulling it under water while leaving a boat full of civilians alone.)

How Much Does Logic Matter?

In recounting the movie, I sound like I'm making fun of it, with the lapses in logic and things, but I'm not, actually.  Or at least I wasn't during the movie.

My standard for movie logic is this:  Do you notice it right away, or only on examination? If there's something so silly in a movie that you instantly jump on it as illogical or weird or nonsensical, that's a problem.  If you only notice it in retrospect, that speaks well of the movie, as it held your attention well enough that you weren't pondering inconsistencies or minor problems, and really, the problems I mentioned in Monsters, such as they are, are all minor.  Really, it's a pretty good movie -- a solid B, if you will -- that only suffers, if it does, from that ending, which had me sort of scratching my head afterwards, wondering about it.

I mean, sure, sitting here the next morning I can think of all this stuff about how the photographer seemed kind of dumb to argue with his rich boss about protecting his rich, hot daughter, but that never occurred to me during the movie, so it didn't matter at all.  It's just something that's fun to pick at later, the way we all make fun of Han Solo's "parsecs" now.

A bigger, and more problematic, logical gap is one that just hits you immediately, like when I was re-reading The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe recently and I thought "Why didn't the White Witch just kill Edmund right away?" I mean, she couldn't have known that Aslan would trade himself for Edmund, right, and killing him would've meant there'd be no way the four thrones would be filled.  (I thought the same thing as I reread Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep, by Philip Dick, and I got to the part where Rick Deckard gets taken away from the opera singer by the android-posing-as-a-cop.  At least four times the andys could've simply lasered Deckard and they didn't, and none of it makes any sense, even with Dick's post hoc justification that andys will do anything to remain inconspicuous, since the fake cop could've lasered Deckard in the car on the way to the fake police station.)

(Another thought about Blade Runner, since apparently I think about Blade Runner when I think about Monsters:  If you've read the book, did you realize that Deckard was actually not very good at his job? He was an assistant bounty hunter, for one thing, who, we're told, was given only those assignments his boss thought he could handle, and he then has to be saved by an andy twice in the early going.  I had remembered the book and movie as making Deckard out to be this great cop, but Dick doesn't do that.)

The ending? to Monsters? What was that about?

When the movie ends in perhaps the most mystifying way it could have, with the scene that got me thinking about the whole movie itself and what actually was intended by it.  The scene is very effective -- it manages to be one of the best scenes overall in the entire movie, and even without the perplexification (?) it caused I liked it, but I was left with a feeling like I hadn't quite got it.

I'm not so sure that's a bad thing, as you'd expect from the guy who wrote a book that people can't figure out and who won't explain it.  The ending, enigmatic as it is, may just be what makes the movie.  Cut that ending out and it's just another alien thriller flick with some decent action and a pretty good story and a few analogies to make it seem smart.  But put that ending in, and it seems, almost, to rise to another level.  The ending seems to tie all the various themes together, both the romantic subplot and the overarching ideas and the general plots and subplots we've been introduced to, but in tying them together, it doesn't explain what it all meant, which the more I think about it is really great, because again, it means that you can enjoy the movie without worrying about what it means, and you can import your own meanings into it, and while that's sometimes a risky thing to do, it really works, here.  When it first ended, my very first thought was "Huh."

Then, a few minutes later, I decided, tentatively, that I liked it.

Now I'm sure I liked it.

Let's hope he doesn't get pigeonholed and forced to spend his life making monster movies, although I can imagine there are worse fates than that.

I was curious about how indie the movie was, so I went and looked it up on Wikipedia, and it was surprisingly indie: the entire thing had a budget of under $500,000, and was mostly shot by a crew of seven people in a van, with many of the actors simply extras who were asked to improvise a scene.  The director (who said he got the idea for the movie from watching some fisherman haul in a net and imagining that it had a monster in it) said he mostly just had some paragraphs delineating what he wanted to shoot.  They would go and shoot all day and then download the film to clear the memory cards for the next day, and he ended up with 400 hours of different footage that he eventually edited down to 94 minutes for this movie, and he then did the special effects himself on his laptop, using off-the-shelf software.

He premiered the movie at the South by Southwest Film Festival, and it got picked up and released and made over $4,000,000, and spawned a sequel he's now filming, too.

And the director who wrote the movie, Gareth Edwards, got a bit of a career boost, you might say: He got picked to direct the upcoming Godzilla reboot.

Briane Pagel wrote a book with an enigmatic ending, too, and yet NOBODY HAS OFFERED TO LET HIM DIRECT A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE. What's up with that?

Find Eclipsehis book about murderous astronauts who may or may not be crazy, on Amazon.  He also writes at Thinking The Lions, and his stories appear on lit, a place for stories and Inky.


  1. Hello I am quietly looking at blogs going the A to Z; that is a seriously detailed breakdown of the film. I am rubbish with films even block buster films and have seen little after about 1970, and having a scrambled mind means I cant remember which ones I have seen anyway. Leaving me with thoughts of . . . . . Did Godzilla really eat Dorothy?

    I note there is a small gang of you so I hope that means you have the A to Z all worked out dead easy. I am helping behind the scenes a bit this year so wish you well and I should be back at some point. . . . . . KEEP WATCHING THE SKIES

    Ooooo the pic under the heading . . . How much Does Logic Matter . . . appears to have a broken link.

    Rob Z Tobor

  2. Hi Rob. We're going with an indie books theme for A-Z, and we already have that planned out. Now we just have to start preparing posts.

    Briane, I think you make a good point about when you notice plot holes. If I encounter one as I'm reading, then that throws me out of the story. If I don't notice it until later, then it has less of an affect.

  3. Well, crap! I just did that type up a long-brilliant-comment-and-have-blogger-eat-it thing. When I realized it was about to happen, I tried to save it, but it foiled me by swallowing it just before I could copy it.

    About Narnia: I have never wondered that. I have always just understood that the witch wanted a "son," even better if it could be one of Aslan's own.

    About Electric Sheep: It must be too long since I read it, because I don't remember any of that.

    About the movie:
    The problem with endings like that is that too often the author and/or director actually doesn't know, either, and there is a difference between the author knowing but leaving it deliberately vague and the author not knowing and just going for something cool (as in Inception).
    About Inception:
    Nolan has stated in interviews that he doesn't actually know how everything ends or, even, whether it was real. He kind of doesn't care. He just wanted it to be "cool." And for people to wonder. It's probably why I think that movie is mostly garbage.

    So, basically, you actually talked me out of watching this movie, especially with the comparison to District 9, which I walked out of thinking, "That was dumb." Sure, I get the social commentary, which was fine, but the -movie- was dumb and full of dumb, ill-thought out sci-fi, and I (and my wife) was barely able to sit through it.

    [They original comment was much better. I mean, this is a condensed version, and it's still quite long.]