The film, Monsters, begins in media res after its two protagonists—photojournalist, Andrew Kaulder, and publishing heiress, Samantha Wynden—are rescued by an army patrol. Upon initial viewing, the audience is unaware that the verdant fuzziness of a military night-vision recording, which they are watching contains the fateful (and, quite possibly, fatal) aftermath of Kaulder’s and Wynden’s interrupted kiss at the film’s ending. What’s more ironic is that, upon multiple viewings of the film, the viewer is left wondering whether the cephalpodic alien life-form that the military patrol evacuating the two characters has grievously stumbled upon is, in fact, one of the two towering creatures writhing in a tentacular embrace towards Monster’s ending and responsible for inciting the film’s two protagonists to mirror their alien counterparts with a brief but revelatory screen kiss.
This blurring of the lines between Monster’s beginning and ending—and the ironies contained within—is indicative of the overarching feel to a film riddled with questions concerning such contemporary issues as: the political debate regarding U.S.-Mexico border control; illegal immigration of Latin Americans into the United States; White America’s diminishment from majority to minority status; the role of sensationalism in the news and mass media; and fears surrounding infectious disease pandemics. However, at its core, Monsters challenges its viewers to look past the now and at the greater whole of not only human history but Earth’s history—and, possibly, beyond—as well, reminding (but not preaching to) its viewers that the human race wasn’t the first species to populate and rule this planet and we very well might not be the last.
The most obvious—or, perhaps, assumptive—allusion that the film Monsters makes is between the otherworldly aliens from Jupiter’s Galilean moon, Europa, and the ‘illegal aliens’ from south of the United States-Mexico border; however, according to writer-director, Gareth Edwards, that wasn’t his intention. In a 2010 interview he gave to msn.com, Edwards explained, “Wherever we set the film, we would have had our giant wall, and we would have had an infected zone, and we would have had a journey trying to get out. Once we picked Mexico, everybody said, 'Is it about illegal immigrants in Mexico?'…The allegory I was interested in was: You have a monster or an enemy or evil that you don't like, and it's like ... at what cost is it worth destroying that monster? If you're doing it because you're worried it will kill people, but in the process of getting rid of it, you kill even more people, is it worth doing still?” (“Monsters and Metaphors with Writer-Director Gareth Edwards,” 2010). Regardless, it’s difficult for the viewer not to observe the striking similarities between the migratorial, ‘invasive’ breeding habits of the aliens in Monsters and the immigrating, extralegal ‘aliens’ who leave their homelands because they are “landless, lacked access to legal jobs, and were unable to obtain basic documents or start their own legal business, due to corruption and archaic legal and social structures” (“Addressing the Root Causes of Illegal Immigration,” 2006).
In both cases, the ‘aliens’ are portrayed as indistinct masses lacking individual names and faces, and threatening to overrun the U.S. with their indefinable ‘otherness’. Likewise, in both cases, the news media is either responsible for projecting these distorted portrayals or is utilized by others as a platform for such sensationalism and fear-mongering. In Monsters, TV newscasts resembling the visual layout of CNN broadcasts seem solely consumed with reports focused on the alien menace, frontline reporters intonating histrionic urgency, and headlines spelling out a post-9/11 paranoia such as: “Creature Outbreaks,” “Air Strikes Continue: U.S. Defends Chemical Weapons Use on Creatures,” and “Mexico on High Alert.” Moreover, many of these headlines mirror the phobia-laden lexicon used in their real-world counterparts. Simply google the term ‘illegal alien’ and find out for yourself.
With search results such as “Report Warns Easing Immigrants’ Path to Citizenship Will Further Harm Economy” (Foxnews.com, 2011), “Bill Would Stop Feds from Releasing Illegal Alien Murderers” (The New American, 2011), “U.S. Sees Surge in Asian, Hispanic Populations” (Wall Street Journal, 2011), and “Hispanic Population Explodes, Census Show” (Patch.com, 2011), is it any wonder that there’s so much confusion over such a heated topic? With the utilization of such aggressive words such as ‘harm’, ‘surge’, and ‘explodes’, Hispanics and Latinos—whether legal or extralegal—are portrayed less as fellow humans and more as ticking time-bombs waiting to go off and ever-ready to murder white America, replacing them with an alien seed of ‘otherness’. In Monsters, Gareth Edwards has deftly hyperbolized these real-world fears reductio ad absurdum; thereby, catalyzing his film into a sociocultural platform for discourse on the subject of illegal immigration and the very real paranoia surrounding it, and in doing so, he manages to unmask these fears for what they really are: thinly-veiled racism. What better way to visually manifest deeply-rooted racism than by juxtaposing it with an otherworldly alien race.
With that in mind, the concept of transmogrifying other races into monsters isn’t a solely modern one. According to author/editor/essayist, Jeffrey Cohen, in his book Monster Theory, “From the classical period into the twentieth century, race has been almost as powerful a catalyst to the creation of monsters as culture, gender, and sexuality” (p.10) and adds, “Given that the recorders of history of the West have been mainly European and male…nonwhites…have found themselves repeatedly transformed into monsters, whether to validate specific alignments of…whiteness, or simply to be pushed from its realm of thought…cultural others are monstrous enough by themselves…but when they threaten to mingle, the entire economy of desire comes under attack” (pp.14-15). Likewise, the lumbering, massive size of the aliens in Monsters is yet another symbolic manifestation of these deep-rooted fears.
In her essay contribution to Monster Theory titled “The Odd Couple: Gargantua and Tom Thumb,” Anne Prescott expounds upon the significance of the disproportionate—and often irregular—size of many monsters: “Giants, archaic though they are, stand at the brink of the new, their very malformation hinting that a new shape may be being born as rough beast…guarding, blocking, or simply marking the threshold, they appear terrifyingly inflated because the future is as yet imaginary, unknown…and like a giant, it is going to swallow us up” (p.83). Prescott’s explanation appears to succinctly fit the Monsters paradigm as well. The aliens in the film are shrouded in mist or dark most of the time and are never fully observed; however, their mysterious enormity is felt through distorted, camera-angle perspectives and shaky, film-footage confusion. Even the alien creatures’ bioluminescence serves not as an estimable contour but as a tendrilous trompe l’oeil. Furthermore, the geographical futurity of the North American continent is an even larger question mark than the aliens themselves. The migrating creatures in Monsters are: the embodiment of a natural Darwinian force that ignores invisible lines drawn on maps; are impervious to the United States’ efforts to keep them at bay with the latest in high-tech warfare, chemical weapons, and a colossal concrete wall; and, most importantly, are symbolic of an uncertain American future—or, more directly—an uncertain white American future.
As the recent U.S. Census of 2010 indicates, “Hispanics, Asians and other new minorities account for all of the growth in the nation’s child population” (“Census Analysis Reveals Growing Gap Between Aging Whites and Young Hispanics, Asians,” 2011), and that “between 2000 and 2010, the population of white children fell by 4.3 million, while the number of Hispanic and Asian children grew by 5.5 million” ” (“Census Analysis Reveals Growing Gap Between Aging Whites and Young Hispanics, Asians,” 2011). This means that white America will no longer be as lily-white as it once was and, of course, that has many middle-American suburbanites in a paroxysmal panic. However, change is inevitable no matter how hard you fight it and Monsters meticulously conveys this message, which is echoed through the character of Andrew Kaulder. He rather remorsefully observes, “When you get home, it’s so easy to forget all of this. I mean tomorrow we’ll be back to our separate lives in our, like, perfect suburban homes. Everything that we’ve been through, it won’t matter anymore.”
Kaulder makes this observation high atop the ruins of an Aztec step-pyramid that he and Sam Wynden have chanced upon after their journey through the Mexican jungle. Once they’ve reached the top, the two marvel at the panoramic vista before them, which is noticeably obstructed by the immensity of a wall dividing the U.S. from Mexico—a wall similar to one that has been suggested by some fear-mongering politicians on Capitol Hill, I might add. This Great Wall of Texas, if you will, was specifically erected to keep the aliens out of the States and, as Kaulder looks in awe of its enormity, he remarks, “That’s the biggest manmade structure I’ve ever seen.” Of course, the irony here is that he’s completely unaware that both he and Wynden are sitting on top of a thousands-year-old manmade structure themselves—one that is overrun with vegetation and weathered by the ages—erected by a previous civilization that dominated Mesoamerica for several centuries but has now faded into hazy history. Here too, Monsters serves as a metaphorical reminder—or, possibly, a warning—that the human race as a whole (regardless of sex, skin color, and ethnicity) is neither eternal nor invincible and that the Earth has laid witness to five previous mass extinctions over an unfathomable period of time; towards each end, another species came to dominate the planet. Perhaps, it’s time for giant, Europan squid to inherit the Earth.
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Monsters. Dir. Gareth Edwards. Perf. Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able. Magnolia Home Entertainment, 2010. DVD.
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