IN THE NOT-too-distant future, Mexico is under quarantine as US authorities struggle to contain the alien life forms that landed in the area years before. Ambushes and attacks by gigantic marauding creatures are common. Tentacles lurk everywhere.
As Monsters opens, the enormous, unwelcome visitors are getting antsy. An American photojournalist (Scoot McNairy) is ordered to abandon his assignment south of the border in order to escort his wealthy employer’s daughter (Whitney Able) back to the US. If that wasn’t problematic enough, his fondness for ladies and tequila leads to the loss of their passports and little option but to face a hazardous trek through the infected zone.
Another week, another alien invasion movie. Happily, this clever, low-budget sci-fi drama shares far more DNA with District 9 than it does with Skyline. Like that recent apocalyptically dire apocalypse flick, Monsters is concerned with human interactions rather than extra- terrestrials. Unlike Skyline, however, Gareth Edwards’s neat immigration allegory boasts a beginning, middle and end – and a chronological twist for good measure.
Shot in a handheld, documentary style, Edwards’s debut feature makes remarkable use of its $500,000 budget. And it’s not just about thrift: photojournalism is the new genre cinema. Nothing grounds monsters stomping across New York (Cloverfield) or demonic possession (The Last Exorcism) quite like news stock. And nothing, as Monsters demonstrates, makes an alien more plausible than keeping the thing out of frame for as long as possible.
Good writing and dialogue that sounds like it was improvised but wasn’t lends further credence to the fantastical premise. Hotly tipped young hipsters McNairy (In Search of a Midnight Kiss) and Able (All the Boys Love Mandy Lane) bicker and bond across dangerous terrain until the film looks more like The African Queen than Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
Indeed, get past the title and the analogy between aliens and illegal aliens and this is a date movie. And not just any old date movie, but the slimiest date movie of the season. LET’S HEAR IT for the lowestgrossing film franchise in history.
In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Charles Baudelaire postulated a new kind of citizen, “a botanist of the sidewalk”, who would both occupy and make meaning of his urban surroundings. More than a century after the philosopher’s death, architectturned-film-maker Patrick Keiller would emerge as Baudelaire’s flâneur par excellence. His Robinson travelogues – London (1994) and Robinson in Space (1997) – are strange, otherworldly walkabouts around decaying structures and pastoral retreats.
Together, these film essays occupy a curious corner of movieverse, an odd suburb where we might find Chris Marker’s La Jetée and various film installation pieces. Narrative is confined to a wry voiceover, which recounts the travails of the narrator’s friend Robinson, a reclusive, unseen academic out to disentangle the “problem” of Englishness.
Robinson in Ruins sees Vanessa Redgrave on narration duties, recounting Robinson’s adventures around substations, Roman relics and military bases. Where the first two films freely associated around the disastrous consequences of Thatcher’s social and economic policies, Robinson in Ruins picks at the permanent scars left by her regime and (in related news) the current excesses of capitalism.
Our invisible hero’s first instinct is to follow the money through gas lines and pension plans and sinister-sounding investment opportunities. The Iraq war looms over the enterprise as he traces a history of US military presence on British soil, from cruise missiles to private enterprise.
Lengthy pillow shots of flowers and meadows lull the viewer into alpha waves between loosely connected, slyly polemical tangents. This is a film about lichens on road signs, former UN inspector David Kelly, railways, Roman occupation, American occupation, the IMF, meteors, banks, roving multinationals, symbiotic Darwinism, epicurean democracy and a whole lot more besides.
Its diversions, however numerous, are less important than the places it visits. For Keiller, the landscape is the movie; an ugly branch of Lidl, replete with its ugly employment practices, is granted the same profound, poetic framing as the dilapidated castles and Gulf War refueling stations.
The results are too thoughtful, too spacey, too off-grid to be confused with a campaigning film. Robinson in Ruins isn’t angry – it’s just really, really disappointed in us.