The new Gareth Edwards film Monsters follows a classically mismatched young couple as the two hack their way through the wilds of Mexico toward the United States, certain that sanctuary waits across the border.
If that doesn’t get your social undertone meter throbbing, then the rest of picture, which sees our protagonists evading tentacled, condominium-sized extraterrestrials, will not make much sense.
For the rest of us, and those who have yearned to see what would gestate if Terrence Malick ever tackled Godzilla, the ensuing sights are curiously compelling.
A space capsule full of extraterrestrial DNA has crash-landed in Mexico, transforming the country into a mutated preserve and no doubt supplanting the Mediochan Cartel as its most formidable danger.
As a precaution, the Americans have constructed an enormous wall to keep the beasts at bay, while the rest of Central America seems to have crumbled into chaos and apocalyptic premonitions.
There, specifically in Costa Rica, is where we meet the film’s alpha male, Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a predictably cynical photojournalist who takes pride in his smug understanding that a picture of a child slaughtered by an alien will yield more money than shooting the alien itself.
Although it’s clear that Andrew would prefer to hang around San Jose to turn his narcissism into negatives, he is ruefully stuck with escorting his boss’s adult daughter, Samantha (Whitney Able), to a coastal ship bound for the States.
The journey, which Edwards captures with the unsaturated authenticity of any BBC documentarian, is surprisingly involving.
Well before the titular creatures turn up, Edwards follows Andrew and Samantha as they travel across lonely green hills, where the air of death lurks implicitly. Their train is forced to turn back because of an unspecified disturbance ahead and Edwards evokes a shiver, not simply because we know what that disturbance is, but because we also cannot visualize it yet.
What eventually lands the two in quarantined Mexico is a series of clerical errors à la any domestic flight from New York to Oakland, but Edwards is keener on finding ways for his boy and girl to realize their affection for one another.
It’s a noble aim, but the chemistry between Andrew and Samantha feels synthetic, driven more by the goal of making a different kind of creature feature than by developing unique characters.
Andrew’s archetype was more enjoyable when he was played by James Woods in Salvador, where his emotional detachment was complemented by an unabashed hunger for hedonism.
Samantha fares even worse, with her well-acted scenes of shrewdly negotiating with Mexican civilians for shelter and transportation undercut by her pouting announcements every time she has to tinkle, as though prompting Andrew to erect a canopy of boughs and wait.
And yet, in spite of these shortfalls, there is something genuinely alive within Monsters, lurking in the whispering jungles and impenetrable rivers that weave through the film. This menace is unnerving enough that when the aliens do make an occasional appearance, their presence is almost disappointing.
Edwards’ film is at its scariest in moments of near silence, with the ruined countryside occasionally punctuated by the shock of seeing a rusted fishing trawler resting in the limbs of a tree or a downed fighter jet inching its way through the water, propelled by something unseen.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that the film’s most startling scene involves a fellow American refugee and the violent sounds that come from her mouth when Samantha offers assistance, breaking the film’s deafening silence.
The aliens are beautiful, somewhere between giant squids and IKEA lamps, gliding over the deserts and jungles with grace seldom seen outside a Waterhouse painting and only baring their fangs when prompted by firearms and the humans that wield them.
Edwards, whose work as a special effects artist is used sparingly well here, is interested in a more conditioned monstrosity, one that manifests itself in the ruins that occasionally dot the landscape, both modern and Mayan.
Even the endless wall that wraps around the United States is a cold nod to actual constructions, like the wall along the West Bank. What Edwards aims for is less allegory than reflection, hidden beneath the hollow promise of slithering carnage.
The film’s heavy-handed title hammers this home gratuitously, but, nonetheless, the images and ambitions conjured by Edwards redeem his inadequacies as a writer. If Irvin Kerhsner could overcome George Lucas’ stilted dialogue with operatic duels, noir-ish photography and Kermit the Frog’s gout-ridden grandfather, then we should expect the same trick from anyone.
Here we have the first glimpse of a promising filmmaker, whose youth and impressive scope are boons to an interesting future — that is, if we have not managed to massacre each other by then.