I called my District 9
review the first half of a two-parter, with its counterpart being that of this film. The only link is thematic, mind you. They're completely different movies. District 9
is energetic, violent and action-packed, whereas this is a slow, almost dreamy road trip through backwaters. Two young Americans are trying to get home through Central America. That's the film. They go through Mexico, Belize and various other places, on a journey that's been shot almost documentary-style. Not much happens. It's a quiet movie that a lot of people are going to call boring.
However it also has gigantic Lovecraftian killer squid monsters.
What makes this film special is its themes, which is ironic because apparently quite a few of the layers were unintentional. They just happened. District 9
showed us aliens that had landed in South Africa and turned into an underclass, whereas here we have aliens that landed in the Americas and got shoved into Central America with all the other poor people. What's interesting about this is that now they're being treated like immigrants, despite the fact that they're like deep sea monsters and can't communicate with us except by tossing around our tanks and helicopters like children's toys. They're illegal aliens. The U.S. has built the biggest wall in the world to keep them out and regularly sends its military to shoot and bomb any foreign countries where if thinks it can find extraterrestrials.
You'll see the real-world parallels, of course. They're screaming at us. "It's like we're imprisoning ourselves." This is a story about cross-border immigration. It's about what the rich world looks like from the outside, about the voyeurism in our journalism and about walking for a while in another man's shoes.
The monsters came here six years ago, by the way. A NASA space probe brought them. (Not Brazilian, you'll note.) The director thought it would be cool to do a movie that took place years after the movie that usually gets made. It seems possible that the "six years earlier" movie ended with the U.S. kicking all the monsters out of its own territory, after which it put its feet up and congratulated itself on a job well done.
So that's the content. The style though is just as interesting, since this is a film made on almost no money at all by a writer-director who went out with prosumer cameras and almost no crew to shoot entirely on location in Central America. His supporting cast are whoever they happened to meet out there. The dialogue is improvised. This is cool, actually, since it gives the film the same kind of verisimilitude that worked so well in District 9
. The performances don't feel amateurish, probably because no one's merely parroting a script, but instead have flavour and truthfulness. Even if you threw hundreds of millions of dollars at this script, I don't think you'd get something that more truthful about what it's like to travel on these roads and rivers. The lack of budget becomes the whole point.
The two lead characters (Whitney Able and Scoot McNairy) are professionals, mind you, and their performances are grounded and excellent. Nevertheless the improvised nature of the film occasionally comes through in the odd unexpected casual line delivery. They'll say something that in any other movie would get given weight and milked for layers of meaning... but here it might come out almost offhandedly, just as part of a conversation. That's not a criticism, mind you. I liked it. It's refreshing and it fits the anti-glossiness of everything else in film.
Those two were boyfriend and girlfriend in real life, incidentally, and are now husband and wife. It shouldn't be surprising that they work well together.
The film even looks great. It's cool to visit all these out-of-the-way places. You couldn't call this a tourist brochure, but it made me want to go there for myself anyway. However as well as the film's documentary-style virtues, its extraterrestrials rank as some of my favourites in any recent monster movie. This is proper big-budget CGI, but realised by the director locking himself away for five months. You can now buy off-the-shelf computers more powerful than those on which Spielberg made Jurassic Park.
Is this a brilliant film? No. Is it even a must-watch film? No. The monsters are usually an offstage presence, with the film's main focus being the road trip movie of Able and McNairy. I liked them, but it makes for a modest, slightly arty film of a kind you get a lot in film industries that aren't throwing around much money. I've seen quite a few Japanese movies like it. However it's the aliens that give the film its thematic strength and then, in the last ten minutes, a scene that's both mind-expanding and beautiful. They're what make this movie special.
If you think about it, this film's aliens only attack people and things that attack them. How much do we know about their intentions? How much does what we think we know only reflect our assumptions? This is a film that invites reflection from its audience, with its power coming from details, resonances and the realism of these people in this setting. The Quack Woman is disturbing, for instance. The film's first scene is a flashback from the end. Don't expect to be excited, but do watch it.
If you're doing it as a double-feature with District 9
though, which I'd recommend for the combination of these two contrasting takes on this new Realistic Socially Aware Monster Movie genre, make sure you watch this one first. The title's unmemorable, though.
"America looks different from the outside."