Border beast­ies

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews -

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.

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