In the Interests of Precision
This is not a review. If you want to know whether I think director Gareth Edwards’s debut feature Monsters is worth seeing, I do. Go see it. But this isn’t about how good I think it is, and why; it’s about what the film’s doing, how this strange fiction (the specific example and the form in general) works. Whether it works well or not, for you or me — I don’t give a shit. More than anything, I want to use it here to explore the sort of dynamics at play in strange fiction, because the movie addresses one aspect of that dynamics directly, proclaiming this in its very title. The film is about the device of the monstrum that drives many narratives, not least those we project onto reality.
I use monstrum here as a technical term, shorthand for a specific formal feature of narrative comparable to Darko Suvin’s notion of the novum as a manner of conceit at the heart of science fiction. If you think that sounds poncy, man, you’re not going to like the definitions, which slice into the notion of subjunctivity presented by Delany in his essay, “About 5750 Words,” dissect it into different flavours of alethic modality, and extrapolate to other modalities — epistemic, deontic and boulomaic. For all the technical jargon of those terms though, really it’s not that complex, trust me; if you can deal with a bit of physics in your fiction, you should be able to deal with the linguistics employed here in the interests of precision.
So what do I mean by “modality,” for example? Simply that where a rendition of events is offered us, on the page or on the screen, it’s tense with the sort of implicit opinions we might normally express in modal auxiliary verbs — is, did, will, would, shall, should, can, could, may, might, must. What I mean by “epistemic,” “alethic,” “deontic” and “boulomaic” is just that if you look at those verbs, they come in four broad flavours, as opinions of factuality, possibility, duty and desireability. The novum and the monstrum? They’re what you get when what’s happening on page or screen is screaming its impossibility or undesireability.
Think of it this way: Where all reportage is offered as fact, it has an epistemic modality loaded into it: this did happen; this is happening. All fiction is by definition non-fact — this did not happen, we know — but we suspend our disbelief, for the sake of a good yarn, with a pretense that it has that positive epistemic modality.
Delany’s subjunctivity is the alethic modality that turns on possibility rather than factuality — whether this could or could not have happened. So where an event breaches the strictures of known science, that event could not have happened; it’s a technical impossibility taken as a conceit, a novum, and we’re dealing not just with fiction, but with science fiction (roughly speaking.)
Alethic modality comes in different flavours. Where it breaches known history, it’s an historical impossibility, an erratum, to coin another shorthand term. Technical and historical impossibilities are at the same level of impossibility — temporal — distinct from the higher levels of physical and logical impossibilities. Which explains much of why science fiction and alternate history are often grouped together and set in opposition to a notion of fantasy as characterised by its breaches of the laws of nature and/or the strictures of logic.
And then there’s boulomaic modality, which can be profoundly negative where an event fucks big time with desireability. Where the sense that this should not have happened is ramped up to the intensity where should becomes must, we’re dealing with a monstrum. Often that takes us into the realm of horror, but the monstrum runs amok in all manner of fictions, from the cheesiest sci-fi flick to the most renowned Greek tragedy. It’s even quite at home in reportage; every tabloid loves a good monstrum. TV news relishes them.
If that straightforward breakdown doesn’t render the jargon transparent, let’s look to the movie for some illustrations of this dynamics in action.
The Warp That Drives
So when Monsters begins, we get a caption that tells us a bold-faced lie: six years ago, the possibility of life was discovered in our solar system. This did not happen. We’re going to suspend our disbelief that it did, (or else why bother watching the movie at all,) but it didn’t really; we know that. Not only that, this could not have happened, not now. The past is past and it doesn’t have the discovery of alien life in it. That’s a blatant revision of known history, an erratum. As the discovery of fricking alien life, it’s also a blatant revision of known science, a novum. The very phrasing tells us this: we have discovered a possibility, added it to the set.
Such breaches strain our suspension-of-disbelief — but then that’s precisely what we turn to this type of fiction for, that warping of credibility into a sense of the incredible. The strangeness of that erratum and novum folded together into that simple caption — that’s the very stuff that draws us to the form. (And alienates others who refuse to take fictions that employ such fanciful conceits seriously, as if to talk in figurative language was inherently puerile rather than poetic.) This is the warp that drives the narrative, the incredible, the strange — as a tension in the narrative itself that we can point to, a raw mechanism of story as determineable as a chemical reaction.
The incredible is peachy keen exciting because of the tension loaded into it. If it’s tempting to equate that warping of credibility with sense-of-wonder though, we need to be careful: firstly, that informal term, “wonder,” conflates a distinctly positive rapture-in-the-marvelous with a more nuanced state of awe where such rapture may be in tension with dread; secondly, we’re not there yet. We might be predisposed to marvel at (or dread) the prospect of discovering alien life in and of itself, to see the promise (or threat) of wonder (or horror) in the very notion. But that’s us. Right now in the story, we’re just dealing with the tension of the incredible here, not its various possible emotional resolutions.
I mean, that incredibility may resolve into the marvelous numina — that which should be, oh yes, if only! It may just as easily resolve into the horrific monstrum — that which should not be, oh god, not ever! Or it might never resolve. The fiction that leaves the strange in an emotional equipoise is in the minority, but it is out there — in Tarkovsky’s Solaris, say, or the Strugatsky Brothers’s Roadside Picnic — wherever the strange is both marvelous and monstrous. For all the implications of its title, Monsters will in fact, at the end of the day, set itself firmly in the latter camp, its monstra gradually revealed as also grand bioluminescent numina, as beautiful as they are terrible. But as I say, we’re not there yet.
Now a second caption develops the conceit: a probe was sent out to collect samples but broke up on re-entry over Mexico. Again, this did not happen, could not have happened. There might even be science fiction fans for whom the warping of credibility is too much here. Wait a minute, they might say. Just where in the solar system was this life discovered? Where do we have within reach that we could get a probe out to it and back in under six years? Given that we know the events could not have happened, we must willfully suspend our disbelief, and there are many who are exacting in their requirements for plausibility to coat the incredible conceit, make it easier to swallow. If they exit the game at this point, that’s their prerogative, but I’ll bid them farewell and carry on, myself. Because this is the first glint of a monstrum, in an accident, a plan gone awry, something that should not have happened.
Another caption makes that monstrum material, binds it to the novum of alien life: new life forms appeared, we are told, leading to an INFECTED ZONE that covered half of Mexico, quarantined off. The wrongness is alive. It is an infection (an INFECTION, even,) an infestation that has spread, is spreading, must be contained by quarantine. Must be contained by quarantine. Because it is that which must not be. We have then, in the monstrum, another type of warp that drives the narrative — a deep tension of affect as authority. The profound emotional wrongness of the monstrum translates to an ethical wrongness in allowing it to be.
The parlance of plague, emphasised by capitalisation, loads the conceit with this wrongness — and even a recogniseable flavour of it, one that has driven narrative since the earliest Greek tragedies where, often as not, some dark crime in a noble house’s past has poisoned it with a miasma, a seeping and corrupting stain, before the action even begins. The Greek miasma is the monstrum as a louring taint on the worldscape itself, the emotional (boulomaic) must not completely conflated with the ethical (deontic) must not. Such conflation of emotion and ethics is at the core of the monstrum. It is so abhorrent that it automatically engenders dicta — that which must happen in response, the protagonist’s duty to undo the wrongness, the deontic modalities of the events they’re at the centre of, face to face with the monstrum.
Assuming they’re face to face with the monstrum, that is. Assuming the story is as simple as that. Here we might find a hint that it’s not. In the final caption we’re told: today, the US & Mexican military still struggle to contain ‘the creatures’… The call of duty has already been answered. The monstrum has already been engaged, and by massed armies rather than a lone hero. And they are not undoing the wrongness, only holding their own at best, and with a lot of effort.
The entire movie, it turns out, will be a challenge to that simple story of the monstrum overcome by the protagonist(s). It will even be a challenge to that story’s equally simple inverse, wherein the monstrum overcomes the protagonist(s). Ultimately it will challenge the very dynamics at the monstrum’s heart, unpack it and interrogate our projection of monstrosity onto the strange. The warp that drives the narrative is on trial here, because it is the warp that drives the narratives of reportage as much as fiction, and thereby drives the narratives we impose on our own lives. This is clear from the very opening of the film.
Armoured in Their Theme Song
After the set-up of the captions, the prologue opens in darkness, the crackling talk over military radio signposting our protagonists, “one male, one female,” just “located,” and then we cut to a confusion of visuals: US soldiers hurrying barely-glimpsed civilians into a jeep; the jeep setting off down a road. All of this in the faux verité of night vision — the mediation of the narrative made explicit, turned into a device, it seems — as in Cloverfield, Diary of the Dead, The Blair Witch Project — to invest us in the fiction.
This is a device, the integration into the story itself of a claim to the epistemic modality of reportage — that this really did happen — either explicitly (in a caption or foreword that casts what is to follow as found document) or implicitly (in a mimicry of the media and idioms of reportage — news footage, camcorders, cameraphones, etc..) It’s a device found in much written strange fiction, from Danielewski’s House of Leaves, back through A Manuscript Found in Saragossa, to some of the first works dubbed novels. The point, of course, is to sneakily exploit our suspension of disbelief to strengthen it. Since we’ve agreed to pretend that what we’re told is true, the narrative sneakily writes that into the deal: that this is not a pretense is one of the first falsehoods we’re told. We’re being invited to pretend that we’re not pretending.
It’s the polar opposite of what some might see as postmodern pastiche then, this device. It’s not foregrounding the medium itself in order to bracket it in ironic quotes; this is metafiction done to further our immersion, presenting us with a fabricated document from the storyworld so that we’re engaging with it as someone in and of that storyworld.
More interestingly though, here this device has a reflection, which comes in the soundtrack to the sights — one of the soldiers humming Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” folding the fiction of Apocalypse Now into the ersatz reality. “Everybody needs a theme song,” another soldier says, to ram home the conflation. They’re our opposite numbers, experiencing reality as if it were fiction. As we pretend this fiction is reality, so some pretend reality is fiction, we’re being told. For these solders what is happening is not happening, not really. They’re characters in a war movie, gung-ho heroes armoured in their theme song, invulnerable.
Not least because the reference reveals the soldier’s complete incomprehension of Apocalypse Now, we should be immediately uneasy with the complacency of that conflation, instantly aware of three modalities: 1) the boulomaic, “you so should not be doing that”; 2) the epistemic, “that will have consequences”; 3) the boulomaic, “those consequences should not happen.” In short, we should be seeing the hubris here, dreading the nemesis. We know how narrative works in a situation like this, know where the dynamics is taking us even before the boom that shatters the soldiers’ complacent fantasy.
Now the chaos erupts. Now all that should not be happening is happening: gunfire — swinging handcam shots of — soldiers — bodies on the road — one female, perhaps? — but it’s too quick to really see — as the monstrum appears, giant, tentacular — some cephalopod of cyclopean scale, towering over buildings — more soldiers — one on a radio — is that a man cradling the injured woman? — screaming for help — all of this fragmented further by titles, continuity ruptured — and he’s dragging her away — being pulled by a soldier (from her?) — stranded behind a vehicle with the woman (abandoned?) — running with her in his arms, down the street, away from the havoc. Cut to a missile’s-eye view, rocketing in toward the creature from the air, just about to reach it, noise crescendoing to a — Cut. Silence and white-on-black title:
At first glance it might seem this is just the set-up for another Cloverfield, a monster movie of peril and panic. But in the margins of the action, we’re being offered, if we pay attention, hints of where this is actually going, hints of another monstrum in the monomania of combat, civilians abandoned to fend for themselves, written off in cold calculations of “collateral damage.” The creature may be monstrous, but the noise of gunfire predominates over its screeching roars. The reference to Apocalypse Now is a flashing signpost to a theme of humanity’s capacity to be monstrous. As is the plurality of the title, pointing us to a plurality of meanings.
There is not just one monstrum here, it says, but many.
A Storm in History
The opening of the movie proper picks up on the callback to Vietnam via Apocalypse Now. Choppers and ruins reflect the imagery of that era as well, and while fireman searching rubble might well fold in more recent disasters — maybe a little 9/11, perhaps? — as the male protagonist appears, crossing a cordon without compunction to ask the workers about the injured, his rolled-up sleeves and satchel, his repeated, “¿Habla inglés?” all click him into a role in the cinema of that era. We know this story. This is the search for a missing person in a war-torn country.
Riding pillion on a motorbike to the hospital, passing tanks on the street, shot with a shaky handheld camera, even before we know he’s a photojournalist, he’s being framed as an analogue to the characters at the heart of films like The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), The Killing Fields (1984) or Salvador (1986). As he finds the female lead in her hospital room, and we learn that she’s Sam and he’s Andrew Calder, a photographer working for her rich father’s paper, sent to check up on her, he even looks and sounds like a young John Malkovich.
So Monsters immediately reframes itself as not some schlocky monster movie at all, but as a story of foreign nationals struggling through the mayhem of conflict in a country gone mad. It’s a story of characters who are part innocent abroad (helpless tourist,) part cynical intruder (exploitative journo,) and wholly witnesses. This is an idiom that’s always clear in one respect — the background is the monstrum more than anything else. Throughout it we’ll find human monstra — corrupt officials, profiteers, like the one in the ferry ticket office, squeezing the protagonists for everything they have. But it’s as much the horror of human atrocity in general such films address, of coups and civil wars, of massacres and mass graves, death squads and disappearances, the monstrous impact on civilians, the “collateral damage.” It’s the time and the place, a storm in history. Vietnam, Jakarta, Cambodia, El Salvador.
Here all this, it might seem, has been abstracted and projected out into the symbol of the creatures, the monstrum wreaking havoc on the land. But with that monstrum cast back into the jungle for now, the film quickly establishes a different locus of dread in the omnipresent military and its iconography: choppers; tanks; missiles on trucks; checkpoints; decontamination areas; troops; guns; gasmasks, gasmasks, gasmasks. Mexican or American, the soldiers might as well be those of some dictator in a developing nation trying to root out rebels, or the rebels pouring through the streets, their insurrection a success. The creatures themselves? Well, as the taxi driver says as he takes the protagonists to the railway station for the train to the coast, this happens every year.
It is a subtle signal, but it is the first scratch at the patina of horror smeared on the Other, the first challenge to the official narrative of this world in which they are cast as disease, infection. They have an annual behaviour as those of other higher order animals. This is natural. This is how things are, how things would be, how things should be. It is a moment of science fiction that returns us to the essential quality of the novum — that it is new and therefore strange, unknown but not “unnatural.” We’re pointed at a reality in the world — the annual migrations of herd animals — which provides the logic of the conceit’s specifics — the behaviour of the creatures is not a monstrum’s arbitrary rampage but rather fits known patterns — which, in this case, undermines the projection of malevolence.
It’s the shape of things to come, a film using its conceit not as mere plot device, but following through the logic of its impact, how things would be if we accept the conceit as it is given, working the conceit and mining the rich thematics that emerges as one does so.
So we’re turned away from the monster movie towards something subtler, something truly science fiction. The novum does not just ravage the world like the monstrum; it transfigures it, reconfigures the worldscape into something strange; and this little detail — that it happens every year — sets us on that path. The creatures are like hurricane season now, a part of nature. Like a tsunami, they leave boats rusting in treetops. They leave ruined hotels to return to the jungle. So we’re turned toward a catastrophe fiction of everyday humans struggling to survive their very setting. And we’re turned toward a filmic idiom of witnesses of history, real and modern.
We might do well to remember here the erratum that kicked it all off, the revision of history that simultaneously points us back (“six years ago”) and sets us in the remade now (“today”.) Not allegorically, thank fuck, nothing so crude, but the thematics invites connections to our own worldscape’s recent transfigurations, invites us to ask what monsters are abroad today. Set as a storm in history, the conceit and the story emergent from it speak of any storm in history, every storm in history. And that patently includes the storm of history we’re living through right now.
Dragons from Space
The mode of science fiction at play here is a subtle one, it must be said. Applying expectations shaped by Hollywood blockbusters, one might characterise the (entirely logical) absences of the creature from much of the action as “playing down” the science fiction in favour of a road-movie / romance storyline, but this would be a profound misunderstanding of how science fiction like this works. We’d do better to look to Lucius Shepard or J.G. Ballard for our expectations. The focus of the story is, yes, our protagonists’ struggle through the conflict-ravaged worldscape, and their developing relationship as they make their way back to the US. But this is only to say that the novum is a real novum, not some interchangeable plot device of peril-creating predation, there for the protagonists to become its victims or victors.
Here the protagonists engage with the wide-scale impact of the novum on a cultural level, as everyday human beings. Here the novum has transfigured the worldscape into the vehicle of a figurative thematics about our world. Here the monstrum is relegated to liminal presence at best in the first half of the film, but this is done in order to allow the real conflict to come clear — that between the protagonists and a society in upheaval. We need to understand this, in fact, to understand that the real threat comes not from a monstrum at all but rather from the response to a novum that casts it as a monstrum.
It’s only by backgrounding what we read as a monstrum that it can slowly be unpacked back to the novum it really is via the revelations of its life-cycle and behaviour patterns that will ultimately render it a rational force — still a strangeness we’re profoundly affected by, but with the horror bound to wonder into awe, and within the grasp of reason if not wholly understood. Substitute this subtlety for a spectacle of protagonists faced with dragons from space marauding through New York, and the movie you’re looking for is far less science fiction than Monsters.
The Story of What Is
As that casual remark by the taxi driver steers us away from the monster movie, it also gestures at those 80s movies in a way that sets us on the right track. The taxi driver is the native adapted to a worldscape in conflict, getting on with his life while the revolutionaries topple the dictator’s government, and the counter-revolutionaries topple the revolutionaries’ government, and so on, dealing with the cycle of violence. It points us at the monstrum of the tanks on the streets then, and at the monstrum of our capacity to become inured to such.
The taxi driver is calloused to it, not unlike Calder whose check-in on Sam at the hospital is perfunctory at best, whose main concern is his chance of a golden shot slipping away because he has to babysit the boss’s daughter on the train to the ferry home. His blunted sensitivity exposes a callowness on her part too, as he asks what she does, if she even works, the unanswered question (and her phone call home to a domineering daddy) leaving the assumptions dangling: that she’s the privileged princess on a last fling before being handed off from father to fiancé, the sort of person who, as the saying goes, has no idea how the other half lives. The protagonists themselves have the dark glint of monstra here, if we don’t withhold judgement, give them the benefit of the doubt. A holidaymaker and a hawker in a worldscape of turmoil.
The more we see though, the more these first impressions are complexified. When they end up spending the night with a Mexican family after the train is turned back, it’s Sam who actually speaks the language, where Calder has spent three years in the country and clearly hasn’t even tried to learn. Still, it’s Calder that we see happily holding the family’s infant at the table — and we’ll ultimately learn that he is himself a father, just as we’ll learn that Sam is acutely aware of her “canary in a cage” life. As the tropes of callow tourist and callous photojournalist are explored, we see that neither is the monstrous visual vulture they might seem at first. (Which is of course wholly in keeping with the movie’s treatment of monsters as a concept.)
So the next morning, as we see Calder taking photos of kids in gas masks there’s an ambiguity to it: is he indulging them with the attention they’re clearly relishing or is just out for a good picture, capable of playing avuncular if it serves his purpose? As Sam is thanking the family for their hospitality, he’s brusquely hurrying the two of them on. Those 80s movies are recalled again, as Sam asks how he feels about his livelihood depending on suffering, bringing this nascent monstrum of uncaring to the surface. We are approaching a key theme.
Calder’s first answer is glib, that he profits from pain, “Like a doctor?” but as he goes on to speak of how pictures of dead children are what sell to people like her father, how he doesn’t cause it, just documents it, his “Everyone has to earn a living,” feels weak. There is a tension between the journalistic ideal of reportage-as-witnessing to be found in, say, Vietnam War reporter Michael Herr’s Dispatches, and the absent figure of Sam’s plutocrat father, the suggestion of reportage-as-sideshow, the media hawking horror. He might reject the ethical should not be of the latter with the ethical should be of the former, validate reportage as duty. Instead he denies a different should not be (directly causing the suffering) and validates reportage on the basis of self-interest.
There’s a gleaning of a monstrum here, I think, the edges of a situation that should not be sketched in where the denial suggests the very thing it is denying. We’ve already seen the TV news in the Mexican family home, the screen the first shot as they enter, never off all the time that Sam and Calder are there, and always on the creatures in some form or other. When murals on a wall show flag-flying tanks fighting creatures, it’s not just an elegantly casual piece of worldscaping in passing; it’s a picture of the narrative this society is living in. The story of what is.
The creatures may not be on our screen much, but they’re omnipresent on the TV screens within it, in repeated news reports and educational cartoons showing kids how to put on gasmasks. The one time we see a TV not showing the creatures, what’s on is a nature documentary about jellyfish. Which is, of course, another little step in the revision of monstrum to novum; here, as before, we’re being offered a notion of the creatures as just that — creatures plain and simple. This is in stark contrast to the US TV news, with its narrative that describes the creatures as “massing for an attack,” a narrative in which they are and can only be malevolent monsters. As in the sort of monster movie that this is emphatically not.
We would do well to remember the beginning of the film here, its faux verité footage and its soldiers experiencing reality as if it were fiction. We might also do well to consider the switching off of the TV news that comes in the peril-driven pre-climactic scene in the gas station, allows for the awe-driven actual climax in which the monstrum is seen for what it truly is.
The Numina in the Novum
When Sam and Calder head upriver by boat, we might well sense a little of that soldier’s Apocalypse Now rearing its head again, but if we’re expecting the monstrum to kick in along the way, those expectations are mostly confounded. The movie is at odds with that narrative, or with the thrill ride that is the soldier’s fantasy of it.
We get unearthly sounds from the jungle at a temporary stop, but as we wait for the analogue of the tiger scene in Kubrik’s movie… nothing materialises. These sounds parse as monstra, like the sounds of Godzilla or King Kong, like the sounds of the black smoke in Lost, warning us that horror lurks in the wild woods. As with the hubris-nemesis dynamics of the opening scene, the logic of narrative creates the dread of boulomaic and epistemic modalities bound into a sense of inevitable wrongness: very shortly, something that should not happen will happen; we’re sure of it. If we’re used to the parlour tricks of cheap suspense, we’re expecting it to turn out to be, thank fuck, something quite non-monstrous, so we can have a moment of relief before the actual monster attack takes place. (A trick also dispensed with in cursory manner, with the lowing cow that is immediately revealed as lowing cow.) We are wrong.
We see a shape at night in the water, panicking the crew and passengers, but this isn’t an analogue of the spear attack scene in Kubrik’s movie either. Instead peril transforms to utter strangeness, a fighter jet raised out of the water, lights of some bioluminescent being flashing beneath. It seems some unfathomable sign. In its utter dislocation, the plane itself is wholly surreal. It’s not so much horrific that it’s there, more that it doesn’t belong, not the way it’s held up, as if on display. It’s a soft sutura, a breach of the logic of significance. And that bioluminescence is even more striking. In the beauty of these glowing lights, we have an out-and-out numina, a direct clash with its counterpart, the monstrum. When a tentacle rises to drag the plane back down, this is monstrosity again, but now a tension has been introduced that will only grow into the true thrust of the film’s thematics.
With hints of Apocalypse Now again, the boat leads Sam and Calder past wrecks smeared with bloody handprints to their overland escorts, all of them waiting by the water’s edge, weapons in hand, silent; but if we’re thinking of the arrival at Kurtz’s camp, the air of menace is quickly dismissed. Soon these characters are chatting with Sam and Calder around the campfire, revealing their knowledge of the creatures’ life-cycle, leading them to trees that are “infected” — which is to say, the creatures have laid their eggs in them; the trees seem perfectly healthy. The characters are wary as the beautiful bioluminescent fungi-like pulsate in response to light and touch, but we are seeing the numina all but stripped of monstrosity. There is no wrongness here, none at all, only strangeness. It is not even incredible in the possibility sense; the jellyfish documentary has reminded us of that. This is a new wonder of nature.
Even when the monstrum does finally erupt as monstrum, it is now no arbitrarily rampaging Cloverfield. We have been told explicitly that it is the bombing that sets them off. We have been told that this is pointless: “You can’t fight nature.” We have heard the planes, the radio, the gunfire, the true wrongness. When the Jurassic Park style scene of rampant destruction and huddled terror is done, the last shot is of a plane streaking across the sky. We’re left in no doubt of the cause. This is the monstrum now, this, the errant aggression born from fear of the unknown, born of the ignorance that has not seen the numina in the novum and therefore writes it into the narrative of the world, the fiction of reality, as a monstrum to be eradicated.
And after that scene, it’s worth noting, we get Calder faced with the true monstrum of a dead child, an opportunity to take his golden shot, a photo to sell and in so doing fuel the fiction of reality. His action speaks volumes of where the monsters are really to be found in this film.
Strangers in a Strange Land
What is this fiction saying about reality then? If we are tempted to jump to an allegorical reading in which the creatures represent the immigrants pressing against the US border, this would be reductionist at best. Certainly, the vast hulking wall built along the US border to keep the creatures out resonates with anti-immigrant xenophobia. Certainly, the signs in the ferry terminal promising the desperate passage to America, passport and visa not required, resonate with coyotes capitalising on a real world analogue. But what allegorical significance are we to find in the blatantly obvious fact that the two American protagonists are, for the majority of the film, the aliens here — outsiders in a nation that is not their home? That even when they return to the US, they return now as aliens, their perspective as transfigured as the worldscape they’ve journeyed through, (transfigured by it indeed,) as evidenced in Calder’s “It’s different looking at America from the outside… in”?
This may be overlooked by an audience from the same culture as the protagonists (or one like the UK, close enough as makes little difference here,) prone to see locals as “foreigners” even as one blunders through their country, but the protagonists are the foreigners here, the aliens abroad. Much of their experience in the first half of the film is driving this home. On a mundane level, they’re taking local trains and buses, getting lost and found, hitching rides, booking into a dive hotel for an overnight stay, showering off the grime of travel, hitting the town to eat local food from stalls. There’s much here that speaks of the experience of travel itself, the tension between naive incomprehension and lucid realisation, of the curious engagement one has with another culture when immersed in it, at once shallow and profound, soaking in spectacle and marveling at the mundane. It might be a tale of two backpackers bonding in the face of exotica and estrangement. It is certainly a tale of strangers in a strange land.
A photojournalist who’s been there three years and still doesn’t speak the language. A rich girl who understands the language but is there as a tourist, a self-indulgence before marriage, like some gap year interrailer bankrolled by daddy’s checkbook. One mediating his experience with the lens of his camera, emotionally divorced from his subjects. One from another world entirely, a life of privilege in stark contrast to her environs. To the film’s credit they are not condemned as this, are not even constructed solely as this, but together they constitute a real world tenor for the vehicle of aliens-as-metaphor as applicable as “Mexican immigrants as perceived by US xenophobes.”
Not that we should seek allegorical meaning here either though. Allegory is seldom how science fiction works, this type especially. Rather the conceit is worked up to a worldscape radically estranged from our familiar environs, developed according to its own logic. If it begins in direct metaphor, the extension and concretisation of that metaphor severs vehicle from tenor; the extended conceit will not be confined to (always already didactic) allegory, but rather becomes a figuration we may turn this way and that, map it to one aspect of reality here, another there.
So as the protagonists wander through the ferry terminal town at night and come upon the shrine to countless dead kids, we’re pointed not at a dysfunctional allegory with the monsters representing Mexican immigrants (or the US fear of them,) but more likely at Iraq… or elsewhere. “The vibe just changed,” says Calder, (at once facile and acute,) in a turn of phrase that might well strike another chord of resonance with Vietnam, Cambodia, et al.. As he and Sam are silent, as he again puts the camera between reality and himself, we see the number of the dead written on a wall, the bones of the unknown in a pile, a sign that proclaims, “NO BOMBING,” with planes in white-on-black transforming the “O”s into peace logos. The scene ends with one of the omnipresent helicopters passing the church bell tower, snuffing the candles of the shrine.
It is the iconography of an anti-war movie. It is the worldscape of civil unrest as terrible monstrum, the conceit of the creatures themselves only a seed of strangeness sown to remake the familiar as the foreign, so that we ourselves may see it with a new perspective, as travellers lost in the turmoil of a foreign land, and as natives alienated from our own. Even the crazed hobo in the desolated town across the border, draped in her American flag, is not a crayon symbol of condemnation. Nor is the gung-ho soldier humming Ride of the Valkyries at the very end, as the movie loops back to its beginning, with the troops driving in to pick up Sam and Calder from the gas station. They are both part of a great monstrum, because it should not be like this, but the whole film has taught us to see how the monstrum is constructed in the course of narrative, not in creatures of essential wrongness but in the stories of them we surrender to, in our turmoil at the impact of the new, the strange, the unknown.
In the end, what the film is articulating is not to be reduced to blunt political metaphor, I’d say. Rather it is encapsulated better in Sam’s comment, towards the end, about her reticence to return to reality, that and the moment of transfiguration, the numina of the climax that might well make both entirely incapable of ever truly returning, having walked a worldscape of estrangement, gazed upon the novum at the heart of it, and seen it for what it is.
But I’ll let the latter, the vision of the creatures at the gas station, speak for itself.
– originally published 2/7/2011
Hal Duncan is a sodomitic Scots smoker who staggered drunkenly into the SF Café in 2005 with his debut, VELLUM, and now has various novels, novellas, short stories, poems and essays circling in print or the aether. Further scribblings and rantings can be found at www.halduncan.com.