November 22, 2010
One could be forgiven for thinking, especially considering its title, that Monsters (2010) is a film full of the aforementioned, or even that it might belong, generically speaking, to action/adventure or horror/thriller. But aside from a little subtle metaphoring and the occasional ounce of social commentary, Monsters is, for the most part (IMHO) a straight-forward romance film.
Serving more as a backdrop than a narrative (in this sense the film is post-classical as it relies on characters rather than events for causal motivation), our two protagonists – newspaper photographer Andrew Kaulder (the adorable Scoot McNairy whose performance in 2007’s In Search of a Midnight Kiss remains one of the most honest I’ve seen in recent years) and Samantha Wynden (Whitney Able) – must make a physical journey back to the US across the “Infected Zone”; an area that covers almost half of Mexico following the crash of a NASA probe carrying samples of recently discovered alien life forms from within Earth’s solar system.
From here the film follows a typical romantic arc as the emotional interaction and connection between our unlikely duo deepens in accordance with the progression of their physical journey. And whilst it may be true that the backdrop of South America speaks to social/racial issues these are merely indicated rather than fully explored in the film. Furthermore, Samantha’s repeated question, “Do you feel safe here?” has less to do with infection, quarantine, social, racial or political difference than it does their relationship. That is to say that Sam, who asks the question of Andrew more than once, feels unsafe because has entered a liminal space between being on her own (as she was in Mexico) and returning home to her supposedly contented life and fiancé.
But that’s not to say that this film isn’t interesting or engaging, on the contrary, it absolutely is. The landscape itself, set up to enhance the atmosphere and heighten tensions in their relationship is also curiously sublime, and here I’m referring to Jean-François Lyotard’s interpretation and analysis of the Kantian sublime (for more information see Lyotard’s excellent Lessons on the Analytic of the Sublime.) For Lyotard there is something within the Kantian sublime that defies cognitive comprehension insofar as the aesthetics of the represented thing are able to produce an indescribable, incomprehensible feeling. This thought within itself is self-reflexively sublime for it is a simultaneously beautiful and terrifying realisation. Moreover, Lyotard finds something sublime in the feeling of suspension that such imagery can invoke; the incognisable explication of waiting for “it” to happen, whilst not knowing or being able to explain exactly what “it” is.
Whilst not all viewers will find the backdrop for Monsters so sublime themselves it is clear that this is how our protagonists experience their own setting and is, furthermore, why at the film’s end our couple are left so entirely devastated. Theoretically jumping from aesthetics to psychoanalysis now, their sublime experience is so intense and affecting that it is akin to the experience of one’s greatest desires, an experience that Lacan tells us results only in severe trauma and a break with the Real.
Returning somewhat abrasively to that Real, Sam and Andrew are thrust back into the world of consumerism, convenience and sustainability. Having seen alien life forms in the infected zone live because of their connection to the natural world (they “grow”, for want of a better word, on the side of trees) the Real world – destroyed as it may be – sees this motif quite literally outgrown and the “monsters” (we humans) draw on unsustainable sources such as electricity in order to continue to flourish.
Likely proving either strangely compelling or overly sentimental, Monsters is a film that will divide opinions dependent upon individual sensibilities. Well rendered if a little reliant upon emotive response, it is perhaps best described as a humanist film in the first instance.
Written by Tara Judah for Liminal Vision.