As February 14th’s sickeningly saccharine celebration of ‘wuv’ approaches with all the grim anticipation of a trip to the gallows, it’s a depressing time to be film enthusiast. With Hollywood’s unobtainable, absurd and often psychotic assertion of what “true love” means, even if you aren’t adrift in a sea of solitude, cinematic relationships might as well be alien pornography. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that one of the most beautifully honest depictions of a human relationship this decade comes from a garage film about extra-terrestrial mating rituals.
Love in film is often an absurd spectacle when looked at in the cold light of day. From the diving onto car bonnets of Hitch (2005) to the desperate chase to the airport at the end of every Richard Curtis film, the extreme romantic gestures of the cinematic Romeo would in reality be the preserve of the obsessive or the stalker – and yet Hollywood continues to pump out this boy meets girl lunacy on an annual basis. Love in the movies comes with some implied difficulty – however the mad-cap overcoming of obstacles to your lover is often portrayed as simplistic and without consequence. If you love her, go get her. And take the marching band and firework display conveniently situated round the corner with you. Just in case.
Hollywood gives a somewhat depressingly atomistic impression of love then. It’s obtainable to any plucky individual with enough gumption to pull himself (and it is almost always a himself) up by the bootstraps, and there are no repercussions of the coming together, as love’s mystique conquers all. It is therefore reduced to a simple individualistic impulse that should be seized upon at all costs. As anyone with a heart and a brain will tell you though, the thing we call ‘love’ is anything but easy.
It is complex, terrifying, and often painful. Often it requires a willingness to sacrifice and dismantle other aspects of the lives it involves, and it can be as destructive as it is creative – but precisely because of that power, it has a unique beauty for the few moments you might experience it. Because after all, half of falling in love is the fall itself. That is rarely addressed in cinema – but fortunately there are exceptions, so you don’t have to take my hackneyed pseudo-philosophy for it.
British writer/director/effects-artist Gareth Edwards’ Monsters (2010) came to prominence – more than anything else – because it cost “well under $500,000”, and featured incredible visuals produced with software accessible to us regular schmucks. But whilst it is undeniably impressive in and of itself that the film-maker was able to create such a vibrant world (that 4 years on remains as believable as it was then), the fact most reviews primed audiences to marvel at its shoe-string brilliance somewhat ignores the core themes of the story. Monsters isn’t actually about monsters – it’s about human relationships; and it’s a damned site more frank about them than the majority of films covering the topic that don’t feature gigantic jellyfish-elephants.
The creatures themselves are used cleverly, having arrived in Central America from another dimension or space (I don’t particularly think it matters which) they serve as metaphoric wallpaper, encompassing the potential destructive power and the brief poetry of coupling – the dread and the grace. Their dance in the shadows mirrors the human protagonists as they too fall for each other. And that’s where the film really exceeds, in examining the subtle midway between raw attraction and contemplation of consequence, Monsters conveys ‘love’ as a fall, not just a Hollywood-esque star-crossed happy ever after, or a cynical and steamy night of easy passion.
World-weary photographer Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) and want-away heiress Sam (Whitney Able) are first brought together when Sam’s father, who owns the publication Kaulder shoots for, orders his employee to ensure his daughter’s safe passage home from Mexico. They come together begrudgingly, but it soon becomes apparent they have something in common. Kaulder, who may once have had hope to change the world as a journalist, is regretfully resigned to his role as journalistic vulture, indicating men like Sam’s father would pay $50k for pictures of kids “killed by the creatures”, rather than nothing for photos of happy children. The dead are more often victims of US airstrikes, perpetuated by the myth sold by Kaulder’s employer for profit, of creatures “massing for an assault”. Knowing he is trapped in a self-perpetuating cycle of destruction, he sighs “I gotta earn a living,” he sighs, “I don’t cause tragedy, I just document it,” knowingly contradicting the events he has seen himself. Sam meanwhile is clearly struggling to break free of her controlling parent; shrinking to a timid child over the course of a conversation that also brings up her passionless engagement. The pair are both captives of a kind, in the custody of the same man – and the power structures of class and gender he embodies. It is out of this despairing scenario that the fall begins though.
As they travel north together, the duo drift toward each other – not uncontrollably, but as if they see each other as a way out. Over the course of the journey they talk about what they are going back to, and whilst their lives come with different wallpapers, the inescapable truth is they are both bound for cages on their return. Their romance then, set in defiance against those enclosures of ‘traditional’ bonds to family, threatens to destroy the lives they pledge to return to – and they both know it – meaning there is a level of almost obligatory resistance from both of them, but also a desire for that resistance to fail. This tense, potentially volatile interplay brings two desperate people, and their hopes, fears and experiences together in a fleeting synthesis that is shown to be at odds with the world’s status quo.
This theme of misery enforced by unnatural confines is mirrored by the couple’s surroundings. In Mexico, we see many graves, not victims of monster attacks, but the “collateral damage” of US air-strikes on the creatures, trying desperately to prevent the natural impulse of migratory creatures to find one another. The suffering here is not a result of some grim natural order, it is man-made. Meanwhile, the dreaded ‘infected zone’, where the monolithic creatures breed, meanwhile, is filled with the beauty of destroyed neo-liberalism. Corporate high-rises and military apparatus have become new-age Aztec temples, reclaimed like those great constructs by the surrounding jungle. Not as Luddite warnings against progress, but as monumental reminders that hierarchal social order is ultimately not natural – and that systems we see as common sense now may one day be as irrelevant as worshipping the Sun God.
The film uses the natural world in a rare and ingenious manner then. Traditionally, films uses forces of nature to reinforce rather than challenge the lay of the land – and one has only to look to the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s classploitation flick Titanic (1997) to see what I’m driving at. In many ways, the film parallels Monsters, in as far as two characters come together to escape life’s harsh ‘reality’ through each other’s company. However, in this case it is an asymmetrical affair, where the character of Rose escapes the acidic relations of upper-class life by “slumming it” with Jack and the paupers on-board the Titanic. Once she has learned how to live life to its fullest, Jack’s part in the story is played. The infamous iceberg inevitably emerges just as they decide to live together beyond the boat in New York – within the film’s ideology an impossible and ‘unnatural’ union. Jack’s role is to serve until he becomes a hindrance, and then like a salmon he is destined to die – hence, nature intervenes by sinking the ship.
In Monsters however, the parting of the couple is not inevitable, nor an act of nature – but man-made act of the oppression. The troops who attack the two ‘dancing’ creatures that Kaulder and Sam finally come together under, are the same troops who part our couple – resulting in Sam’s death (in a flashback at the start we see a man, maybe Kaulder, carrying her body amongst the resulting battle). The soldiers then, are a physical avatar of the constraining ideology that forbids the pair the coming together; defending the constructed institutions of class, gender, marriage and family that prevent them knowing any self-defined happiness. These are the Monsters – the man-made leviathans that corrupt and dismantle human lives under the guise of normality. These Monsters are what make the romantic fall all the harder, but when the couple join together knowing they face such destructive power, it makes those subsequent, all too brief, moments of wonder all the more meaningful in their rebellion. That’s falling in love as you don’t see it in Hitch.