Monsters (2010) is a modern-day fictional monster film which, as with many films in the horror/monster genre, acts as a social commentary, touching upon contemporary geopolitical issues and public anxieties (Carroll, 1981). Bordwell and Thompson (2003) describes a horror film as being “recognizable by its intended emotional effect on the audience”, and this film successfully does this, although more subtly than other films in the genre. The diegesis of the film, based in Mexico, is a world in which the ‘monsters’ of the title are huge squid-like aliens which, for the past 6 years, have inhabited a large area of Mexico which has now been quarantined as an ‘infected zone’, with a huge wall being constructed on the Mexico-USA border to keep the aliens out. The film follows a photographer (Kaulder) and his bosses daughter (Sam) as he reluctantly attempts to escort her safely back to her father in the USA after a rogue alien attack left her injured; and the romance that blossoms between the two throughout their ordeal.
I will show how this film uses these aliens with dramatic, symbolic effect to also act as an allegorical narrative for current societal issues; offering a semiotic analysis of these underlying themes and signifiers within the film. The direct analysis will be of the aliens themselves, yet the interaction and reaction of humans with the aliens also carries other meanings, and will be considered.
Prior to the opening credits of the film a brief textual narrative explains that alien life was introduced to earth as a result of a failed NASA mission, resulting in the area being quarantined as an ‘infected zone’, with the military still struggling to contain these ‘creatures’. The treatment of these creatures is allegorical to that of illegal immigrants and refugees which are effectively quarantined by western governments, showing how these aliens can be considered a signifying symbol of a societal concern about immigration. This bears resemblance to allegories used in the 2009 film District 9, another example of a film where aliens are quarantined, however in this instance, the representative discourse is that of apartheid in South Africa.
In the opening sequence of the film (post-credits) a series of following shots introduces ‘Kaulder’, the cynical male protagonist of the film. The scene is set as he examines a collapsed building in a warzone and attempts to gather information from the rescue workers at the scene. “Do you know where they take the injured?” asks Kaulder, but has difficulty explaining his situation due to the language barrier. This image of the warzone is elaborated throughout the film, with the mis-en-scene including tanks, weapons and general destruction. This representation is a metonymic sign, an iconic resemblance alluding to areas of real present civilian conflict zones such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq, portraying the destruction of the lives of the people who live there and the difficulties faced by those who have loved ones entangled in conflict, either as a military or civilian presence. Although we are aware that this destruction was in fact caused by conflict between military and the aliens, the way the scene has been composed and edited shows clear visual similarities to images portrayed in the media of destruction in contemporary warzones (these can be seen in figures 1 and 2, particularly note similarities of colour and content)
Fig 1: An over the shoulder shot of a rescue worker with the rubble from a destroyed building and a military tank in the background taken from the opening sequence of the film Monsters (2010) which helps build the mis-en-scene. (Monsters, 2010)
Fig 2: A similar image of a destroyed building, to that in Fig 1. Photograph taken from a real life conflict zone in Helmand province, Afghanistan (2009) shows a US Marine patrolling this site of destruction. (Getty images, 2009)
Later on in the film we are shown a series of close-up shots of Sam and Kaulder in the back of a taxi, juxtaposed with point of view shots showing their views of further destruction and military occupation in what seems to be a primarily civilian area. Whilst Kaulder is keen to document this by taking photos, Sam seems disturbed by what she sees, asking the taxi driver “Do you feel safe living here?” his response being “Where would we go? My work, my family is all here”. This symbolises the real life hardship that civilians in conflict zones have to face; they have no resources to migrate from the area, and even if they could, they abandon their homes, families and livelihoods.
Fig 3. A cut in shot used to emphasise the graffiti in the background which, translated into English, reads “STOP THE ATTACKS”, a cry from the civilian population to the US dominated military that are destroying their cities and killing their children in attempts to destroy the aliens. (Monsters, 2010)
In a later sequence, a series of cutaway shots depict thousands of candles lit in memorial to the numerous dead in a city near the quarantined infected zone which experiences huge losses due to the conflict. Cut in shots are then used to focus on graffiti on the walls of surrounding buildings. One of these (fig 3) reads “Detener los ataques – 500 dead” which translates to “stop the attacks”; another proclaims “Que son los ‘monstruos’ – no bombing!” which asks ‘who are the monsters?’
This is a key, symbolic scene in the movie as it implies that in fact the civilian population feel the root of the problem is not the aliens but the heavy handed US military opposition dropping bombs and gas in an attempt to eliminate the aliens which are not particularly aggressive until provoked. Signified meanings of the graffiti messages are referents of the way in which western militaries act when entering civilian zones, such as the recent US occupation in Afghanistan and Iraq. Here, the US military conduct routine violence in the name of the ‘war on terror’, yet they bomb and destroy the lives of innocent people in these civilian areas in the process. This idea is emphasized in the final shot of this sequence where a passing US military helicopter blows out candles at the candlelit vigil, alluding to the civilian lives ‘blown out’ by the same military.
Kaulder and Sam continue their journey through the infected zone towards the safety of the US eventually reaching the huge wall constructed on the border between the USA and Mexico to keep the aliens out (Fig 4).
Fig 5: A photo of a section of the existing USA-Mexico border barrier which is under construction by the US government in response to illegal immigration from the south. It construction has been met with much criticism from both sides of the border (Ignelzi, 2007)
Fig 4: A shot from the film Monsters (2010) of the huge wall which has been constructed by the US government on the border between the USA and Mexico to prevent alien invasion from the south. Although on a far larger scale, this bears some resemblance to the barrier which currently exists, constructed to combat illegal immigration (Fig 5). “It’s different looking at America from the outside” – Kaulder. (Monsters, 2010)
Although the wall bears resemblance to the existing barrier constructed on the USA-Mexico border, a deeper interpretation is that the wall is a more abstract metaphor for the barrier that governments construct via the media to hide the truths about their militaries involvement in armed conflicts. The public are constantly shown images of heroism by US troops, and death and destruction caused by the opposition, yet images depicting the death and destruction inflicted on the civilian populations by US military action are rarely publicised. In the film, American citizens are physically divided from the carnage occurring on the other side of the wall, unaware of the destruction being caused by their own military presence and the opposition those who live in the conflict zone have to the US military presence. Kaulder supports this idea when he says, whilst looking at the wall “when you get home it’s so easy to forget all this, I mean tomorrow we’ll be back to our separate lives, in our, like, perfect suburban homes”, describing how protected and separated those in the USA are to what is happening in the conflict zone. This narrative symbolises the current ignorance of unnecessary civilian deaths in Afghanistan caused by US military actions.
This discourse contradicts the view presented by conventional war films which will typically glorify US interventions and present “the production and reproduction of discourses of American national identity” (Carter, McCormack. 2006) as it is a monster film so has a totally different agenda.
Eventually, Sam and Kaulder make it through the border back to the USA in a town which has now been unexplainably evacuated, but are picked up by a US military convoy.
Here I have examined geopolitical issues, using semiotic analysis, expressed as symbols and features in the film Monsters, and how these have been visually constructed and represented. In this film, the monsters could be metaphors for the fear of immigration, and the way these people are treated by those in the developed world – and terrorism, looking at the lives of civilians living in conflict zones whose day to life is disrupted by warfare and military occupation caused by terrorism. It also questions, who are the terrorists? These anxieties are two key referents, visualised by the aliens. Throughout I have considered the conventional use of the aliens as symbols of these fears, a typical discourse used in films of the monster genre. I have looked at visual similarities between examples used in the film and reality, presenting images from the film and secondary sources where useful, particularly looking at how those people living in and around the infected area resemble those living in areas currently occupied by a military presence.