Monsters (versus Aliens)[1]


On the flight from Manchester to Orlando recently I managed to catch up on a few films I had missed at the cinema in the past few months, amazing what a new baby does to your social life, one of these movies was Monsters. Monsters drew parallels by some critics and audiences to the previous years District 9 as they are both by first time Writer/Directors, both scifi movies and both have extraterrestrials in them. But this comparison was unfounded and unfair to both movies.

District 9 is an odd movie, it starts almost as a social parable reflecting on Alien integration in South Africa and their confinement in camps or ghettos, there is a reflection of South Africa’s turbulent past pitched into the nature of the film making it immediately thoughtful and blessing it with the commentary on the regions past and present. The aliens are misunderstood both socially and culturally and forced to move into deeper draconian control and our sympathies are directed towards them.

Once the movie has established this premise it turns into an invasion flick with an infected host[2] and then into an action movie that Arnie would be proud to be in. The movie therefore sat uneasily as its tone wasn’t balanced. Was it commentary or eye-candy, thought-provoking or mind-numbing, you could take your pick. It certainly spanned across genres and it was *very* entertaining. The direction was superb as were the performances and the sleight of hand in both film making and story telling well done with the plot events harder to determine than first imagined.

Monsters on the other hand is a drama. The sci-fi elements in this movie are used simply to highlight the director/writers motifs and allegories. He could have easily have used a zombie plague or a viral infection to achieve some of the same effect[3] in the surface notion of a world split by the need to control an aggressive enemy.

The “monsters” of the title are seemingly unthinking creatures who devastate lives and communities almost without meaning. The director uses them to portray different attitudes that can be given to the same impetus. The Mexican/South American people have learned to live with the encroachment, seasonal disturbances and death whereas the American (USA) attempt to force control or wall in the threat. The US attempts to control using force are debated upon as they are seen to aggravate the creatures, the effectiveness is called into question throughout the movie and is even seen to cause needless disruption and eventual failure of this type of approach in later scenes. The monsters are seen a forces of nature by some of the main protagonists, they are simply responding to and living with their environment, though as the movie develops the creatures and give some hint as to an unknown intellect with them analysing television performance and communicating with each other in some manner.

Into this mix we have the central drama facing the characters, a woman dislocated from a family she seems emotionally detached from and a man forced to have no attachment to a family he so clearly craves. The developing bond between the two leads and the cleverly constructed performances (though I have to say the male lead was the finer performance in my opinion) draw the audiences sympathies. It is a credit to the director that he almost unobtrusively allows these two to develop themselves as opposed to pushing onto us there evolving nature. Their approach to the creatures and the situation they witness, the male lead is a photographer whose initial stance as a journalist merely there to document is gradually eroded by the circumstances in the film as he is embroiled in the conflict.

Monsters, therefore, is a more rounded drama, the film knows where it is going and its tone stays consistent throughout. It does suffer somewhat from a lack of dramatic tension during the middle third of the film, and at times the female leads is called on to be a little too detached from her surroundings, though this does balance well with her being drawn into the real world around her and experiencing it rather than ignoring or running away.

This is by no way a judegement on either film, I would happily watch both again and would probably give them similar scores if asked to grade them as they both have a multitude of different advantages to perk my interest.

I think District9 has more immediate re-watchability as its pace is snappy and it is easy to stay focused as you are not called upon to use *too much* brain power. Monsters requires a lot more engagement from the audience as its central themes are questioned and challenged in the layered narrative[4] which left me feeling questioned and reflective.

I wish we could stop the poor comparisons that are made between films[5] and attempt to analyse them for their own worth. I have always maintained that comparative analysis is derogatory[6].


[1] By Aliens I am referring to District 9 as it had an identifiable intelligent Alien species whereas the alien species in Monsters was not so clearly defined.

[2] Overtones of 50s Red under the Bed socialist-sci-fi-parables mixed in with 80s re-reading of such movies.

[3] Though the use of zombies or a virus would mute the impact, it also would be at odds with some of the themes that are expressed and without as much implication and toying with our sympathies as it is easy for us to instantly be against Zombies/Virusses as they are immediately bad.

[4] I felt that in Monsters there was a slight overuse of dramatic pause that perhaps added to the feeling of a slow middle section.

[5] I guess they are encouraged by studios and marketing departments as linking your production to another that was successful rewards you with bottoms on seats, the issue for me is that degrades both films, especially films like these which are so different that the only element that links them is EBEs.

[6] Comparisons are often used as they make it easier for us to relate to things, I know they are necessary I just wish people were more aware that they are degrading the item, and themselves if the comparison is flimsy.

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