Considering the name of this film and the nature of the (extremely limited) advertising, it would be easy to mistake Monsters for exactly what those images imply: a cheap monster movie. The kind of sci fi that ends up running Saturday nights on Syfy Channel (boy do I hate that name).
As it turns out, appearances are extremely decieving. Monsters is a low budget film, and there are indeed monsters in Monsters. But this is a thoughtful, well-paced, neatly framed little story, and in the end you're left wondering exactly where the monsters might be found.
The background to the movie is that, several years ago, a NASA probe crashed into Central Mexico. Soon after that, odd (and quite large) creatures began appearing in the area and eventually several Mexican states were at least partially evacuated, forming an "infected zone" patrolled by both US and Mexican military.
In the most contrived bit of the film, we learn that the wealthy daughter of a media mogul has been trapped south of this infected zone, and a not-quite-respectable cameraman has been fingered as the guy to get daddy's little girl back from the hot zone. It's not the best beginning, especially when both these characters initially appear to be fairly generic movie archetypes. However, no sooner do we get on the crowded train for the coast than the true nature of the film begins to appear.
At its core, the film is two things: it’s the story of people at loose ends in their lives, and it’s a homage to the Mexican landscape and to the people who live in its many villages, towns, and small cities. As the story plays out, the we see the two characters pushed further and further from their comfort zones. We watch them moving – often with little control over their own direction – against the lush backdrop, and gradually enough of each character drips out that we understand them. Understand why they’re in this place. Understand that they’re hiding from their own actions and from tough decisions. In the end, neither character is a complete revelation – they both are who they seemed to be when we met them – but they’re both well-rounded characters, and their behavior seems neither as selfish nor as inscrutable as it initially appeared. By the end of the film, you can’t help but like these people.
The vision of Mexico presented is like a fever dream; beautiful, desirable, and broken. The Mexican characters we encounter are almost universally accepting of these two Americans wandering through their land. Even those who at first appear fearsome turn out to be both perceptive and caring. In contrast, the border with the United States is shown as a wall of fantastical proportions, and those who are trying to cross it as facing a desperate, nearly hopeless task.
As one of the two Americans remarks, the United States looks very different when you see it from the outside, and that’s just what the course of this journey allows them to do: see their homes in a new light.
Finally, there are the monsters. Giant, strange, tentacled things that look like massive cross between squid and crab, these Godzilla-sized creatures feature in the opening scene, but for most of the film they are kept neatly off screen. Through a number of clever maneuvers, the monsters are made to haunt the movie rather than dominate it. We see their images in passing murals done in a traditional Mexican style. We catch a glimpse in a Spanish-language cartoon as a child is instructed on how to wear a gas mask. Grainy black and white news footage shows us something moving through city streets. We hear the rumblings and squeals of the creatures in the distance, somewhere just over the next hill or behind the next copse of trees – a sound that invariably stops all the characters in their tracks.
When the creatures finally do return to the screen, it’s to underline what we’ve already learned after following this couple on their long journey home. Monsters are made through actions. Violence, overreaction, guilt and fear; those are the ingredients of a monster.
This is a well made film, carefully built, well acted, and beautifully filmed. It may have been made on a budget, but the dollars were used wisely. A bigger budget might have just tempted the filmmakers into showing more, making us think less, and that would have been a bad thing. As it stands, this monster is a very good thing.