‘Monsters’ Built the Mexico Wall Trump Never Will

What kind of movie will best describe the Trump presidency for future generations? Will it be high-minded drama replete with sarcastic asides, soaring speeches, and a grand view of the arc of history ala Aaron Sorkin? Maybe trashy overkill gutter-punk in the vein of John Waters or Bobcat Goldthwait would be more appropriate. How about a monster movie? Better yet, one with an extremely obvious yet potent visual metaphor that predated the current catastrophe? If the latter, then 2010’s Monsters might be a good place to start.

This was the first feature by Gareth Edwards. A visual effects artist, he would later go on to helm character-deficient, middling-to-meh franchise entries like the 2014 Godzilla (the Bryan Cranston/Juliette Binoche one) and Star Wars: Rogue One. But with the no-budget Monsters he crafted something that, while decidedly imperfect, carried an eerie prescience with far more staying power than his later big-studio releases.

The setup for Monsters is simplicity bordering on sketchy. Several years before the action starts in 2015, a space mission returning to Earth with alien life forms broke up on reentry and crashed somewhere in Mexico. Afterward, strange creatures started appearing who didn’t react to well to the humans they came across. Mexico is now mostly quarantined, with the American and Mexican military fighting to keep the rarely-seen creatures bottled up.

Into this situation drops Andrew (Scoot McNairy), an American photographer angling to get that one great career-making monster shot. In an attempt to strike opposites-attract sparks, Andrew’s wings are clipped by his filthy rich boss, who deputizes him to bring Sam (Whitney Able), his somewhat incapacitated turista daughter, safely back to the States. Being the film’s lead stupid protagonist (several of whom are requisite for your standard monster flick), Andrew wastes no time getting them on a train and then jumping off into the darkness to find their way on foot. A couple even-stupider decisions later and the two are hustling through the heart of the deserted quarantine zone, hoping to reach the safety of the Rio Grande in a sort of reverse migrant odyssey.

The mood is that of a slightly off-key indie drama about two Americans on the loose south of the border. To its credit, Edwards’s script plays it loose and relaxed for much of the running time. This is almost a post-monster film, where everybody is inured to the idea of the great octopoid creatures and the dangers they represent in occasional flareups. The helicopters buzzing overhead, the towering quarantine zone fences, smashed military vehicles, and omnipresent patrols are all business as usual for the post-9/11 era. The militarized mood echoes life on the streets of wartime Kandahar or Basra.

The ingeniousness of Edwards’ creation pales once it becomes clear just how incompletely realized his characters are. Their foolhardy behavior and nonsense conversation would hardly matter in many less-formulaic films, but Edwards doesn’t deliver much in the way of shocks and scares to make up for it. Keeping the curtain pulled back and opting for misdirection and hint instead of the bloody claw in the night seems commendable at first. But it’s less dramatically convincing when the film shows it has little to fill the void with besides some lengthy cribs from Apocalypse Now and a coda as baffling as it is anticlimactic.

But then there’s the wall. When Andrew and Sam finally make it to the border, they see it. A grand, sprawling edifice of concrete slopes and buttresses, it looks like a latter-day Great Wall of China. Only instead of repelling Mongol hordes, it’s there to keep the monsters out. There’s a critique embedded in that arresting image, the wall’s soaring heights neatly symbolizing the terror with which Mexican immigrants are viewed by nativist Americans.

That same fear of a crumbling border and invading foreign influences has been rippling through movies over the last few years, fueled by the hyperbolic pronouncements of xenophobic American politicians and the unending slaughter of the Mexican cartel wars. It’s there in everything from the doomy pronouncements of Cormac McCarthy’s script for The Counsellor (“the slaughter to come is probably beyond our imagining”) to Sicario: Day of the Soldado, in which a porous border becomes a highway for terrorist infiltration, to the lawless chaos of the border zone in the gloomy futurism of Logan.

When Monsters came out in 2010, the immigration debate was at such a feverish pitch that a giant alien barrier seemed a perfect metaphor. Underlying that was the sensation that certain people of the Fortress America camp wouldn’t actually mind such a gargantuan construction along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Of course, that was before President Trump and his long-promised “wall.” It wasn’t clear all those years ago that even given the anti-immigrant hysteria being stoked for so many years, those forces would still be unable to align themselves to build even a low dirt berm along the Rio Grande, much less something that could be seen from outer space.

A version of this review originally appeared on filmcritic.com.

Title: Monsters
Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able
Studio: Magnet
Year of release: 2010
Rating: R