Six years after an extraterrestrial race landed on Earth, a photojournalist is dispatched to Mexico to escort an American heiress back to the States. After they’re robbed, the pair must travel through the so-called Infected Zone to make it back home. That’s pretty much all there is to Monsters, Gareth Edwards’ interesting but rather shallow lo-fi sci-fi jam that, despite not bringing anything particularly new to the table, manages to be sort of risky in a way that its clear antecedent District 9 couldn’t quite manage. It’s essentially a two-hander, following the photographer (Scoot McNairy) and his cargo (Whitney Able) with the now-standard low-budget hand-held faux-documentary camera. It’s not really spoiling anything to reveal that no actual aliens are glimpsed until the final scene; Edwards chooses to imply their constant presence and the paranoia that engenders in nearly everyone our characters meet. Jet fighters firing missiles into the distance are a common sight, as are the charred carcasses of what appear to be giant squids littering the landscape. That’s a decision that has two likely results. Either it’s going to irritate genre fans who just want a creature feature, or it’s going to trick viewers into thinking they’re seeing a more thoughtful film than they really are. But Monsters doesn’t actually have anything to say about America’s relationship to Mexico, or poverty, or immigration. It’s content to merely stage its character drama in front of that backdrop, in fact relying on that to provide any actual content.
It’s a cop-out, really, and an intellectual failure. But if you wanted to, you could chalk it up to letting the audience draw its own conclusions. It’s easy to roll your eyes at heavy-handed imagery like a giant, rampart-like wall surrounding the U.S. border, but at least Monsters doesn’t hammer you with flimsy allegory or get distracted by flashy special effects and perfunctory action sequences; it stays focused on a tiny character drama/romance, one that’s refreshingly free of pop songs, meet-cutes, dancing, or Zooey Deschanel. Monsters manages to avoid cliche mostly in its characterizations. Our cynical photojournalist never fronts the fortune-and-glory macho posturing so many similar stories would leave you with. This is resolutely not a guy who comes to realize that he’s in a cruel business; from the get-go he seems aware of the human cost of the economic quarantine in front of him. The subjects of his curious, empathetic photography aren’t afraid of space monsters, they’re merely hungry, poor, and desperate. There’s also no lazy definition of our blonde heiress as some bubble-headed, overprivileged Barbie. She’s not some overdressed party chick on vacation, traipsing through the jungle in high heels like Paris Hilton-meets-Kate Capshaw-in-Temple of Doom. It’s the patience Edwards applies to their relationship that keeps Monsters afloat, as it repeatedly sacrifices suspense, irony, and ideologues for a simple examination of two people finding strength in their rejection of privilege.