Friday, December 10, 2010

Prawns and Monsters

The basic idea behind Gareth Edwards's Monsters is a good one -- or maybe not the basic idea, because I don't know which of the film's three or four ideas was Edwards's jumping off point. But the basic narrative idea is a good one, and that idea is this: the Earth has been sort-of invaded by aliens, specifically one chunk of the Earth, and a man and a woman (played respectively by Scoot McNairy (!) and Whitney Able) need to travel from that chunk, to another, alien-less chunk. These aliens, while not obviously aggressive, are nevertheless alien, and therefore ignorant, enough of Earth and humans that they're causing a good deal of havoc. Also, while sometimes very large in size, they're not everywhere, so while this man and woman go about their difficult journey the aliens are spoken about far more often than they are seen, and when they are seen it's usually in glimpses, and more often than not on television.
But Monsters takes some wrong steps early -- starting with some unfortunate dialogue, as when Andrew (McNairy), who has been sent by his employer to find Samantha (Able) because she is, in fact, his employer's daughter, greets her by announcing "I work for your father's publication" -- culminating in the realization (this on the part of the audience) that Monsters is an allegory about an Important Issue of Our Time. This is, I suppose, inevitable, because these days, and in all the days that preceded these, science fiction can often be divided into two types: action stories, and Important Issue of Our Time stories. That's when it comes to movies, anyway -- in literature, it's quite a different proposition, because in that medium the genre allows for quite complex books like Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End, and its bleak yet hopeful approach to evolution, or Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream, the conceit of which is that Hitler never went into politics, but rather science fiction, and The Iron Dream is, indeed, supposedly written by Hitler, and well, I have to admit I've never read that one, but I do like the idea, and anyway I think it's safe to assume that James Cameron will never be tackling that kind of material, or, at least, not on purpose.
What I'm saying is, science fiction on film is somewhat less varied, and while I won't presume to speak for you, I'm beginning to suffer for it. Monsters, for all its minor faults, has a really nice, theoretical approach to the idea of extra-terrestrials, or rather -- and this, unfortunately, is crucial -- "aliens", and here I mean on visual terms. Thematically, however, somewhere along the way (right from the beginning, for all I know) Gareth Edwards apparently thought "Space aliens are a lot like Mexicans," and Monsters as we know it was born. Because Mexico is in fact the setting for Monsters, and America has built a wall along the U.S./Mexican border, and at some point, swear to Christ, Samantha actually says, in reference to this wall, "It's like we're imprisoning ourselves." That quote is inexact, but, I assure you, just barely. Almost nobody has realized, even at this late date, that unless you know what you're doing, you should leave allegory in the fucking toolbox. Virtually without fail, the result of removing it from that toolbox, with the intention of actually using it, is either a lecture, or a mix of a lecture and a round of high-fives with all the people who walked into the theater already agreeing with you. And I swear to you, it's not the specific politics or philosophy that is the issue here -- the problem is a lack of imagination. Being stopped in your tracks when you realize that "aliens" can actually have two meanings...well, that's not the kind of barn-storming idea that kept your Wellses and Asimovs and Ellisons and Delaneys and Silverbergs chugging along -- put it that way.
But oh ho! Monsters, as it turns out, has quite a surprise in its pocket -- I realize I sound like a sarcastic dick there, but I actually mean it. I won't give away the end of the film, but before turning its story into a silly loop-the-loop for not good reason I can figure, Monsters presents us with a pretty darn good look at these titular "monsters" (to Edwards's credit, the underlying meaning of his title is not that "we are the real monsters," and for that I can only be grateful), and they're huge and beautiful and astonishing and doing...something. This stretch of the film -- a good five minutes or so, focused on these creatures -- is quite honestly one of the greatest bits of science fiction filmmaking I have ever seen. For a film that wears its influences not so much on its sleeve as on its forehead -- a lot about Monsters will seem awfully familiar to an awful lot of people -- to suddenly go all dazzling and awesome (the original definition, as in "wonder-inducing", as opposed to the more familiar meaning, "pretty neat") was a bit of a jolt. And it seems to me that this is why Edwards made this movie, because he knew he could do this (and, not incidentally, he could do it for not very much money); what he needed was a reason to do it, and the uninspired 90 minutes (and the dopey, but non-fatal, "twist" that follows) that precedes this moment is what he came up with.
But Jesus, you know...I'll take it! What this section of Monsters is doing is exploring true alienness. Not the alienness of "the Other", which in college classrooms often means "people who aren't white", but true alienness, otherworldly, science fiction alienness, which itself, just lightly buried, doubles as the entirety of what we don't know and will not know in our lifetimes, and would never understand even if we could witness it. It's about knowing you don't know shit, that we don't know shit, even though the majority of us seem pretty confident that in a relative eyeblink, universally speaking, we've amassed all possible world and scientific knowledge. Finally, for all its massive failings, Monsters put me in mind of one of the greatest, and purest, science fiction stories I know: Terry Carr's "The Dance of the Changer and the Three" (you can follow that link and read the story yourself), which is a rather brilliantly dark take on the idea of uncertainty, approached by Edwards in Monsters with a more positive, albeit speechless, sense of wonder. So that ultimately my take on Monsters is that it's really not a very good movie, until suddenly, and however briefly, it is a very good movie.
But I don't know, maybe recent disappointments have just made me soft, or quick to forgive, given that disappointment is not my favorite emotion. What I'm getting at here is last year's weirdly beloved District 9, the triumphantly successful first feature from Neill Blomkamp. The thing about the critical reaction to District 9 is that it appears to have had a positive baseline, so that reactions needed to grow from the feeling that it was rather nice that such a film, on such a scale, came from a country other than America. Which, okay, but from my perspective this means that I'm supposed to think that I don't really like the movie, but at least it came from South Africa. I'll give you that, if you think it's so important, but I'm still left with this broken heffalump of a lecture -- er, movie, this broken heffalump of a movie, whose noble goal is to illustrate Blomkamp's take on South Africa's current ethnic and political situation without chintzing out on shots of people exploding. I appreciate that, I guess, even though it means that District 9 is a mix of the two types of modern cinematic science fiction I'm most sick of.
I thought of District 9 a lot while watching Monsters last night, mostly in the context of believing they were equally bad, and for the same reasons, but I think it should be clear now that in a head-to-head race, I think Monsters comes out ahead. For one thing, Monsters is visually consistent -- as a piece of filmmaking, it knows where it's going. District 9, meanwhile, consists of a very uneasy split between faux-documentary and standard, third-person omniscient (or whatever the opposite of a documentary is) action spectacle. This split is all the more uneasy because the documentary style is eventually just unceromoniously dropped. More obnoxious to me, from a technical standpoint, is the entirely absurd plot element involving the main character, named Wikus Van De Merwe. Played by Sharlto Copley in a much-hailed performance (even though I can't see what he does here that is any different from any other actor who has played a self-important, twitchy beaurocrat in any film ever; the film's innovation, which is genuine enough, is to make this guy the hero), Wikus goes from a guy whose job is to evict the space aliens from the impoverished blotch of Johannesburg they've chosen to inhabit since their baffling arrival some years before, a job he takes to with some callousness, to a guy who has great sympathy for, and even fights to correct, the plight of these same space aliens. He gets there because the aliens have this fluid, see, which is on one hand fuel that they need in order to escape from this South African plot of land back to their ever-hovering mothership, and on the other hand is a goo that if a human gets sprayed with it, it will transform him into a space alien. What good, or even just impact, this particular chemical property has on the space aliens when they're nowhere near Earthlings -- which presumably, in the context of their entire species, is almost all the time -- is anyone's guess, but it sure comes in handy in District 9.
And look, I'm really not a big believer in the idea that the science in a science fiction film needs to be spotless in order to pass muster, nor do I find much worth in those who would pick away at all the supposed implausibilites in a story (strange, quick digression: the most recent episode of The Office features a protracted and even vicious snowball assault by one character on another, and I've seen people criticize this plotline for being too absurd in general, and because in reality one of their co-workers would certainly have stepped in and called an end to it; it is my hope that these people never enter into the field of comedy writing), but surely there are limits. When your plot hinges on something that is not only nonsensical, but also manages to rub our noses in metaphor, then something's wrong somewhere. How about I write a movie about a poor minority kid who travels with his dog through an unforgiving countryside, until one day he sees a rich white man drop a loaf of bread, and when the kid feeds that bread to his dog the dog gains the power to sniff out free money. Whatever, it's a metaphor.
So District 9 is quite a bit more plotty than Monsters, which is fine by me in theory, much less so in execution. Worse, though, is that outside of some nice shots of the mothership, Blomkamp has no awe for his aliens. He's not trying to make a science fiction movie -- he's trying to make an action movie that Says Something. However, since he thinks he's making a science fiction movie, in order to stitch the action to his point, he's got to go through this absurd business with the fuel/transforming goo. But he betrays his intentions by having no curiosity about his aliens. Science fiction, along with everything else, is about curiosity, and Blomkamp has none. His "prawns" are not well-imagined creations -- they're substitutes. Like so many others, Blomkamp doesn't realize that something can be a metaphor and still be the thing itself, or if he does know this he thinks that making his aliens fond of cat food (which, honestly, is very close to being a joke from ALF) counts.
Monsters is curious, though. It takes a while to get there, and frankly it's almost not worth it. But in the end, I believe it is. For about five minutes, Monsters is the anti-District 9, and for all my bitching, it gives me hope for the future.


Anonymous said...


bill r. said...

Thank you.

Marilyn said...

I was talking with someone yesterday about why 2001: A Space Odyssey might be my favorite film, and it was for the very reason you mention here - it's in awe of what we don't know about the universe. I was but nonplussed when she said she hated Stanley Kubrick's movies because they make her feel stupid.

bill r. said...

I've never heard anyone cite that as a reason why they hated something. I've heard people berate themselves for similar reasons, or anyway mock themselves, but to turn it outward? That's a new one on me.

Marily said...

There were a great many things that a few other comments revealed to me about her, but I was not going to argue with and and felt just a tiny bit sorry for her for feeling the need for so much certainty in her life. I think it's her husband who makes her feel stupid, but she can't blame him.

Greg said...

I don't mind science fiction or fantasy, like The Twilight Zone for instance, using allegory but in my experience, it's clumsily done a good 85 to 90 percent of the time.

I think a part of the problem is that, often, the people who use science fiction to tell allegorical stories are either a science fiction enthusiast, and thus not very poetic in the ways of allegory but excellent in the ways of imagining other worlds and species, who have latched onto a political cause and want to explore it through their work or they're a political-minded person with no feel for science fiction who thinks it would be brilliant to show us how aliens and immigrants can be interchanged.

It is precisely this type of science fiction that bugs me because the idea is already a simple enough one that most of the population gets it before the movie even finishes casting, much less starts shooting. Who hasn't thought about immigration issues and pondered the plethora of factors involved? But by setting it in Mexico, and having us put up a wall, it's simplifying to the point that renders the complexities at hand meaningless.

bill r. said...

Greg - Well, yeah, if allegory were handled better in SF then I'd have nothing to complain about. But it's not. TWILIGHT ZONE is an interesting thing, though, because you know as well as I do how heavy-handed it could be, even when it's really good, but it had a tone to it, a storytelling vigor, or something, that made it okay. The old EC comics had it, too. I'm not sure how to explain it, but TWILIGHT ZONE skates clear of my bitchiness on this topic even though it could be just as "guilty" as anything.

As for MONSTERS, yes: you're saying absolutely as much about the issue of immigration by saying "This movie will be about space aliens in Mexico, and a US that has built a wall to keep them out" as you do actually making that movie. The message, such as it is, has been delivered before you roll an inch of film.

Meanwhile, though, I still think you should see it, if you haven't already. I'd love to hear your thoughts on the five minutes I really loved.

Greg said...

I would too. You've got me really curious about those five minutes.

Anonymous said...

This reminds me of reading a recent notice on (I wanna say) the AV Club about the home vid release of Marshall's CENTURION. The reviewer noted that the film started in a place that seemed rife with parallels to current US military activity & nation building but soon abandoned all that in favor of blood and brutal violence. This was delivered as a criticism but all I could think was "Oh thank god! Now I still wanna see it."

Thoroughly agree with everything you say here regarding METAPHOR!!! in sci-fi and the underwhelming nature of DISTRICT 9.

A good friend and I have a catchprase we haul out anytime we encounter anything of this nature. It's taken from an old Beavis & Butthead episode. The boys are watching a video that begins with scenes of shadowy authoritarian figures marching in unison and hauling people out of cells, money being put in satchels, people listening to reel to reel recorders, etc. Beavis on the soundtrack: "...oh boy... oh dammit... sigh! I think this video has a message..."

Kelly said...

Bill, this is a really well written piece man, I enjoyed reading it!

While I enjoyed District 9, I totally agree with your assessment. I guess anything that's seems to have some idea is preferable to me to a shoot-'em-up. Unless it's a really cool shoot-'em-up, which happens sometimes..

Anyway, I hadn't even heard of Monsters, but you have made me definitely want to check it out! Thanks...

Tony Dayoub said...

I'm so glad you addressed MONSTERS in relation to DISTRICT 9. I had been putting off seeing the former for many of the reasons you associate with the latter, but now you've got me intrigued.

bill r. said...

otherbill - I wrote up CENTURION myself awhile back. My take was that, yes, there are parallels to Our Current Situation, but good luck finding enough evidence to support whatever views you hold on the subject. It was sort of all over the place in that regard, I believe by design.

Kelly - Thanks, buddy, I really appreciate that. And listen, ideas are great, which is sort of my point. I don't see much in the way of ideas in DISTRICT 9 -- half-chewed metaphors don't cut it for me. I know what smart science fiction can be...I've seen it before! I don't like seeing DISTRICT 9 getting praised on that level, when I don't think it comes anywhere close to it.

Tony - If only there was some way for you to see only that five minutes! Although I guess it is better to have some context...

OlmanFeelyus said...

I suspect you are reading way too much into the part of Monsters you loved so much. I agree that it was quite wonder-inspiring. But I think it was such in spite of the director's intentions. Because I think what the director was trying to show us, and this was fitting with the ham-handed delivery of theme in the rest of the movie, was that the monsters were making love and these privileged humans (who, annoyingly, were already privileged beautiful rich white people, thus undermining the entire film from the getgo) were the ones who got to realize it and thus realize that these strange aliens were just as "human" as we are. The film looked great and this scene benefitted from it, but I don't think the director wanted us to have any room to try and interpret what the monsters were doing. Nor did he leave us any room to interpret the crazy old homeless lady with the american flag wrapped around her shoulders. Monsters was vapid and simplistic, and ultimately a liberal, bourgeois fantasy of the worst kind. It sure did look great, though!

Your critique of District 9 strikes me as very similar to the critiques against Inception and Nolan's work that you railed against: simply because it was popular.

bill r. said...

Olman - I did consider that what the aliens were doing was a mating ritual, but I didn't think it was obviously a mating ritual, so I decided not to label it as such. So my point on that bit still stands.

As for DISTRICT 9 and INCEPTION, well, first off, I don't believe I ever said that people simply didn't like INCEPTION because it was popular, but rather that some people quite explicitly stated that anyone who loved INCEPTION were simply in the bag for Nolan (see also Scorsese and SHUTTER ISLAND). My own problems with DISTRICT 9 are laid out, I think, pretty clearly in the post. If I was baffled by its popularity, well, I mean, I was. That's not the same as not liking it for that reason.

bill r. said...

Post-script - It's not even the popularity that baffles me so much. I am not, for instance, baffled by the popularity of TRANSFORMERS, much as I dislike it. What bothers me is that people hold DISTRICT 9 up as an example of "smart" science fiction, because I don't think it qualifies as that at all.

Bryce Wilson said...

I guess I didn't find the metaphor THAT overpowering in Monsters. I mean sure the subtext was there, but most of the movie seemed dedicated to making a modern day Legend Of Boggy Creek.

Now whether or not THAT's worth doing is certainly up to discussion.

And I have to say, I like The Prawns as well. And I think (aside from the goo ex machina) its better thought out then you give it credit for. The idea that if something evolved under a completely different path, we wouldn't have all that much to say to it, is one that's under explored.

I mean if we as humans met a disgusting looking race of hive mind based creatures with no definable personalities save for the central one, I don't think it'd take to long for the general populace to go from "Neat Aliens" to the kind of antipathy you eventually see here.

BLH said...

Terrific post. Just terrific.

DTG Reviews said...

Great post, this is a very good movie but different from what I anticipated so I'm not certain if I liked it or not. I must give it another viewing.