A decade after its initial release, Gareth Edwards’ hit sci-fi Monsters stands as a testament to what low budget independent filmmakers can create – thematically, technically, and financially. Thanks advanced technology becoming cheaper, and more widely available, the film has all the sheen of a multi-million blockbuster, but with a charm and intellectual nous that is often absent from the designed-by-committee products of the studio system. It subsequently raked in $4.24 million, on a budget of $500,000.
Edwards, who wrote and directed the film, has gone on to helm huge franchise editions since his success with his feature filmmaking debut – but he has broadly remained true to the style he honed in his opening film. Rogue One and Godzilla might have both commanded hefty CGI budgets, and the responsibility of having to please already existing fans, but Edwards managed to insert a level of grounded, ideological debate into them – particularly Godzilla.
In the 2014 film, a disarmingly simplistic set-up allowed for an intelligent resurrection of one of cinema’s biggest stars. The film’s themes really come to life when the ugly shadow of Fukushima casts itself over Godzilla’s plot. The central story is of a soldier trying to get home through the chaos to his family; however, in the background is the constant whirring of idiots at work.
Presented with a stark choice of giving up its current form of boom and bust existence, or face annihilation, human society resolves that rather than switch to wind-power, it should put all its faith in one gigantic monster beating the primordial ooze out of another gigantic monster, in a city millions. Edwards’ clever social commentary imbued this box-office titan with a stinging satirical edge to mix and bitter-sweet pathos, much like Monsters – and goes to show that even from edgy independent beginnings, filmmakers can make it big in Hollywood.
But what was it that made Monsters – the film which made Edwards – such a success with critics and viewers? Big budget, effects driven films were dime-a-dozen at the time, and little has changed, so certainly there was more to it than being able to offer up decent contemporary imagery. In actual fact, the film’s low-key analysis of human relationships might have been the driving factor that led word of mouth to put bums in seats.
What’s love got to do with it?
Hollywood gives a somewhat depressingly atomistic impression of love then. It’s obtainable to any plucky individual with enough gumption to pull himself (and it is almost always a himself) up by the bootstraps, and there are no repercussions of the coming together, as love’s mystique conquers all. It is therefore reduced to a simple individualistic impulse that should be seized upon at all costs. As anyone with a heart and a brain will tell you though, the thing we call ‘love’ is anything but easy.
It is complex, terrifying, and often painful. Often it requires a willingness to sacrifice and dismantle other aspects of the lives it involves, and it can be as destructive as it is creative – but precisely because of that power, it has a unique beauty for the few moments you might experience it. Half of falling in love is the fall itself, after all. That is rarely addressed in cinema – but fortunately there are exceptions, so you don’t have to take my hackneyed pseudo-philosophy for it. Stepping into this niche, at its heart, Monsters isn’t actually about monsters – it’s about human relationships; and it’s a damned site more frank about them than the majority of films covering the topic which don’t feature gigantic tentacle-covered jellyfish-elephants.
More Lovecraftian than your conventional love story then, the creatures themselves are used cleverly, having arrived in Central America from another dimension or space (I don’t particularly think it matters which) they serve as metaphoric wallpaper, encompassing the potential destructive power and the brief poetry of coupling – the dread and the grace. Their dance in the shadows mirrors the human protagonists as they too fall for each other. And that’s where the film really exceeds, in examining the subtle midway between raw attraction and contemplation of consequence, Monsters conveys ‘love’ as a fall, not just a Hollywood-esque star-crossed happy ever after, or a cynical and steamy night of easy passion.
World-weary photographer Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and want-away heiress Sam (Whitney Able) are first brought together when Sam’s father, who owns the publication Kaulder shoots for, orders his employee to ensure his daughter’s safe passage home from Mexico. They come together begrudgingly, but it soon becomes apparent they have something in common. Kaulder, who may once have had hope to change the world as a journalist, is regretfully resigned to his role as journalistic vulture, indicating men like Sam’s father would pay $50k for pictures of kids “killed by the creatures”, rather than nothing for photos of happy children. The dead are more often victims of US airstrikes, perpetuated by the myth sold by Kaulder’s employer for profit, of creatures “massing for an assault”.
Knowing he is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction, he sighs “I gotta earn a living,” adding, “I don’t cause tragedy, I just document it.” Sam meanwhile is clearly struggling to break free of her controlling parent; shrinking to a timid child over the course of a conversation that also brings up her passionless engagement. Both characters are captives of a kind, in the custody of the same man – and the power structures of class and gender he embodies. It is out of this despairing scenario that the fall begins though.
As they travel north together, the duo drift toward each other – not uncontrollably, but as if they see each other as a way out. Over the course of the journey they talk about what they are going back to, and whilst their lives come with different wallpapers, the inescapable truth is they are both bound for cages on their return. Their romance then, set in defiance against those enclosures of ‘traditional’ bonds to family, threatens to destroy the lives they pledge to return to – and they both know it – meaning there is a level of almost obligatory resistance from both of them, but also a desire for that resistance to fail. This tense, potentially volatile interplay brings two desperate people, and their hopes, fears and experiences together in a fleeting synthesis that is shown to be at odds with the world’s status quo.
This theme of misery enforced by unnatural confines is mirrored by the couple’s surroundings. In Mexico, we see many graves, not victims of monster attacks, but the “collateral damage” of US air-strikes on the creatures, trying desperately to prevent the natural impulse of migratory organisms to find one another. The suffering here is not a result of some grim natural order, it is man-made. Meanwhile, the dreaded ‘infected zone’, where the monolithic creatures breed, is filled with the beauty of destroyed neo-liberalism. Corporate high-rises and military apparatus have become new-age Aztec temples, reclaimed like those great constructs by the surrounding jungle. Not as Luddite warnings against progress, but as monumental reminders that hierarchal social order is ultimately not natural – and that systems we see as common sense now may one day be as irrelevant as worshipping the Sun God.
The film uses the natural world in a rare and ingenious manner then. Traditionally, films uses forces of nature to reinforce rather than challenge the lay of the land – and one has only to look to the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s classploitation flick Titanic to see what I’m driving at. In many ways, the film parallels Monsters, in as far as two characters come together to escape life’s harsh ‘reality’ through each other’s company. However, in this case it is an asymmetrical affair, where the character of Rose escapes the acidic relations of upper-class life by “slumming it” with Jack and the paupers on-board the Titanic. Once she has learned how to live life to its fullest, Jack’s part in the story is played. The infamous iceberg inevitably emerges just as they decide to live together beyond the boat in New York – within the film’s ideology an impossible and ‘unnatural’ union. Jack’s role is to serve until he becomes a hindrance, and then like a salmon he is destined to die – hence, nature intervenes by sinking the ship.
In Monsters however, the parting of the couple is not inevitable, nor an act of nature – but man-made act of the oppression. The troops who attack the two ‘dancing’ creatures that Kaulder and Sam finally come together under, are the same troops who part our couple – resulting in Sam’s death (in a flashback at the start we see a man, maybe Kaulder, carrying her body among the resulting battle). The soldiers then, are a physical avatar of the constraining ideology that forbids the pair the coming together; defending the constructed institutions of class, gender, marriage and family that prevent them knowing any self-defined happiness. These are the ‘monsters’ – the man-made leviathans that corrupt and dismantle human lives under the guise of normality. These monsters are what make the romantic fall all the harder, but when the couple join together knowing they face such destructive power, it makes those subsequent, all too brief, moments of wonder all the more meaningful in their rebellion. That’s the differentiator that really helped Monsters succeed, I would argue; here is the act of falling in love as you don’t often see it on screen.
A version of this article originally appeared on the Hollywood Hegemony website in 2014.