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By Philip Reeve

Living in the country: being a parent: going to the cinema.  It's possible to combine any two of these activities but not, I've found, all three.  Since my son was born in 2002 I've barely been to the pictures at all, except to take him to see the occasional Pixar movie.  But last night he was staying with one of his friends, so Sarah and I ventured down to the Barn cinema at Dartington to watch Monsters, an ambitious low-budget sci-fi road movie by the young British director Gareth Edwards.  (In my day, young British directors only did cheesy mockney gangster flicks, so whatever you think of his film you have to admit that ambitious sci-fi road movies are a step in the right direction.)

Monsters is cut from similar (but cheaper) cloth to Neil Bloemenkamp's District 9.  It follows a couple of stranded Americans as they try to make it back to the US border through a spreading 'infected zone' in northern Mexico which has been seeded with alien life brought back by a ill-advised NASA space probe (did Quatermass teach them nothing?)  Unlike your average Hollywood catastophe flick, Monsters doesn't show us the end of civilisation happening overnight, but presents it as something slow and rather humdrum.  Unfortunately the film itself is also slow and humdrum in places, with the central characters flanning around picturesque Mexican barrios like hipsters on a gap-year, barely bothering to mention the giant space octopi which are such a fixture on the rolling news channels.  The aliens - whose motives and intelligence remain obscure - seem to have been infected by the same ennui and just stomp listlessly about knocking down buildings and scoffing pick-up tricks because, you know, that's what monsters do...  It's obviously aiming to be a bit more existential than your average creature feature, but I did find myself yearning for the days when monster movies always came complete with a Scientist and his Beautiful Daughter who could explain a bit about the critters' life cycles.

Still, mustn't grumble; the film is beautifully shot and edited, and the background is nicely sketched in, with hovering gunships and flights of jets giving the impression of some huge, secret and probably doomed military operation going on just beyond the edges of the story, and signs everywhere which look like the Mexican equivalent of those wartime 'Keep Calm and Carry On' posters that trendhounds nowadays find so hugely ironic.   There are a couple of very well done monster encounters, and slightly too many scenes which build up a huge amount of tension and then fizzle out in some sort of false alarm.  There is also a very good journey up a river clearly twinned with one in Apocalypse Now.

In the old days, monsters were always a metaphor for The Bomb; these modern ones were definitely a metaphor for something, but I couldn't quite work out what.  The gringos' carpet bombing and chemical weapons seemed to be causing more damage than the creatures themselves, and a lot was made of a huge anti-alien wall which the US authorities were building all along their southern border.  There was a bit of talk about how the U.S was 'imprisoning itself'.  I suspect the message we were supposed to come away with was that the Third World, despite all its poverty, violence, and scary viruses, is actually no more of a threat to us than a swarm of aggressive walking squid the size of office buildings.  Or something.

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