Six years ago, a NASA space probe returned to Earth, carrying with it alien life. When it crash landed in northern Mexico, and alien life forms spread throughout the country, prompting United States and Mexican authorities to quarantine the region to contain their spread. When a photographer is asked to bring his employer's daughter back to the United States, they have to travel through the infected zone to reach safety. The film is a stunning, beautiful, and understated movie that surprised me all the way through to the credits.

Recently released to DVD, Monsters is a film that I've been wanting to see for a little while now: it was on a limited circuit in theaters, and on demand, and it wasn't until its recent release that I've been able to see it. The wait was certainly worth it: Monsters is easily one of the best science fiction films to have been released in 2010, and easily ranks amongst some of my favorite films in the genre, such as Moon, District 9 and Alien.

What's even more surprising here is that Monsters, directed by Gareth Edwards, was an exceptionally cheap film to make, coming in around $500,000, cheaper than Moon at $5 million and District 9 at $29 million, by a long shot. Like some of its fellow low-budget counterparts, the strength here doesn't lie with known stars or even elaborate sets, but is exemplified by its story and themes, elements that most likely couldn't have shone through to the extent that they did in any other way.

Like Alien or even Jaws, Monsters does more with less - a lot less - The aliens that we see are only seen at rare points in the film. Watching promotional trailers for this, it's easy to see how this type of film could have been seen as a monster flick - the plot certainly allows for something along those lines (and it could be an option at some point, certainly) - but this film isn't really about the aliens that have landed: this film is, at its heart a love story with a political message within it. Low budgets certainly don't equal quality film and storylines, but Monsters hits both the quality visual appearance, and quality storyline to make this something special. Furthermore, this is a science fiction film where the film isn't driven by the strange science fiction things in the foreground, but a human story within speculative fiction constraints that sets the boundaries for how the story plays out.

The idea of the United States constructing a wall to hold out aliens has a clear and pointed political message behind it, particularly relating to immigration from Mexico into the US. Much like District 9 was about immigration, the message comes off as a little heavy-handed at points, the filmmaker making it clear what he thinks about the situation. Immigration is a multifaceted issue, coming across as a threat to be contained, or something with an unseen or hidden beauty that requires the right timing and placement to be seen.

When it comes to the other element of the story the relationship between Andrew, a photojournalist and Samantha, the daughter of his editor, the film gets a little more clunky. There's something to be said for an offbeat nature to Andrew's character as someone who's cynical and fairly unlikable, but the film does very little to expand the characters or provide them with any measure of depth. The story is elementary: boy and girl meet, boy likes girl, girl is engaged and eventually likes him. That being said, the story works for what it is, and while it's uneven, it doesn't tank the movie like it should have.

Filmwise, the movie is gorgeous. I can't help but wonder if Edwards (who directed the film and worked as the cinematographer) has experience as a photographer, because there's a keen eye towards the visual element of the film, with the focus blurring and focusing appropriately, with the camera lingering on the right scenes, and generally not feeling as if the film is driven by the director, but along for the ride as the two characters wander up through Mexico. My only complaint is that when nightfall comes, it's just a bit too dark, with it hard to see what's going on. Coupled with Jon Hopkin's mesmerizing soundtrack, the film is quiet but vibrant at the same time.

Monsters is an excellent film with a quality eye behind the camera, with wonderful colors and composition, with a simple, yet powerful story that ties it all together. It's a quiet, understated and interesting film, one of the best of 2010, and an excellent example of the genre itself.

Vermont is a Border State Too

The state of Vermont resides between New York to the West, and New Hampshire to the East, with Massachusetts to the South and Canada lying along its northern border. Often, I forget that Vermont is just one state that borders a foreign country, save for the occasional trip to Montreal every year or two, or an irregular security check point set up along I-91 that runs the length of the state. Quite simply, immigration and issues with the border rarely become an issue here. The recent events that have transpired in Arizona brings an acute reminder that other states have problems with their borders, with illegal immigrants coming across the border and all of the issues that comes along with an influx of foreign individuals. While I am largely horrified by the law that has just been passed in the state, I am forced to see, understand and accept the reasons for which it was implemented.

Arizona and a number of the states that border Mexico have legitimate issues with illegal immigration. I've always felt that the United States should have the right to determine who enters the country, and with a porous border, there will always be a level of uncertainty as to who, and what is moving across the border. This transcends race and nationality as an issue, and relates directly to national security issues. This event demonstrates the level of frustration that a state has with the lack of responsibility and action that the federal government has taken when it comes to securing the border, taking actions into their own hands. In all likelihood, the state's right to supersede the federal government's will be slapped down by the courts, which makes me wonder if a law such as this is just something designed to get a lot of attention to a particular issue.

The issues here is that given the demographics of the region, with a wide mix of legal and illegal immigrants as well as naturalized and natural-born citizens, determining who is supposed to be in the country is difficult, and the state has granted unprecedented powers to detain and deport people without papers. In all likelihood, the massive amounts of national attention on the law will be sufficient to hold the police and other state officials in Arizona in line. The first person who is wrongly accused, detained and deported will cause further public relations and legal issues for governmental officials. What scares me is not so much the law, but the potential for its abuse by state officials, and for local citizens, who can prompt action from their local police forces. A collective effort to govern is not necessarily the best method of government, but collective action to enforce potential laws seems worse. The argument that people should trust their police is something that I have a very hard time accepting.

The solution won't rely on the enforcement and vilification of the illegal immigrants by deporting them. The reasons for the problem in the first place need to be dealt with at the source - on both sides of the border. Vermont has not enacted this law for very good reasons: we don't have the problem with immigration that the southern states seem to. My one encounter with a random Border Patrol team is a unique event, and if the problem was worse, I'm sure that I would see a heightened presence from them. But, Canada is a fairly stable country, with a large scale economy, and with a population that isn't desperate for a new life here in the United States. Issues across the border become our issues, and any plan that Congress will most likely soon be looking into should include ways to help Mexico mobilize its own economy and work on retaining their workers, while working out our own policies towards immigration in this country.

I don't see immigration as a bad thing for the country. After all, we all have our roots as newcomers here to the country, but more importantly, new people, diversity and change to our demographic makeup gives the country a unique perspective, with numerous viewpoints, ways to approach issues and to look at the world. We're stronger for it, and I hope that Arizona's law, and crucially, its mindset leading up to it, will never come to the Green Mountain State.

Of Mice and Mobile Armored Assault Platforms

A number of websites have begun to herald a change in the science fiction genre recently, with the recent releases of Moon and District 9 earlier this summer. I was a huge fan of Moon - I thought that it was an absolutely fantastic film, one that captured the essence of the entire genre in wonderful fashion. However, District 9 is a worthy companion for Moon this summer.

Where Moon was quiet, sterile and patient, District 9 is much of the opposite. Taking place sometime around the present, the world has lived with the presence of an alien race on the planet for nearly two decades, when a massive alien ship appears over South Africa. Inside is millions of insectoid aliens, sick, dying and weakened, who are transported down to the surface, where they are first put into temporary shelters until a suitable place can be found for them. This never happens, so a slum of sorts is formed, District 9.

When the story picks up, tensions have risen in the last twenty years, so the aliens (referred to as Prawns) are being relocated to a new home - District 10. A private security company, Multi-National United, seems to have been placed in charge of their protection and keeping, and is working on evicting the aliens to their new home. An MNU employee, Wikus van der Merwe, portrayed by actor Sharlto Copley, is promoted to command the field units in charge of relocating the aliens. During the course of the day, Wikus is sprayed with a fluid by mistake, which begins a process of mutations that blends human and prawn DNA. Thus begins a nightmare for Wikus, who is in turn hunted by Nigerian gangsters and MNU security forces, who both want to study him in order to utilize the alien's weapons.

The film is shot in a very unconventional manner, partially handheld camera work, security cameras, news footage, which gives the entire film a very raw and rapid feel throughout, which really suits the tone and style of the film, and gives it a unique look and feel. The director, Neill Blomkamp, is a first time-director for a film of this scale, although he was initially attached to the now-defunct Halo film (and I think that he would be the perfect director for the project, when it comes back).

Another element that really succeeds from this film is the portrayal of the aliens. For once, aliens are truly alien, not just humans with a different appearance. The Prawns are insectoids, with a vastly different understanding of society, and the differences in cultural norms is what seems to drive much of the conflict - different values, such as property and personal possession seem to be relatively unknown elements to the aliens, and this leads to incidents. Their awareness of the surrounding events seems to be limited as well, with some exceptions, which makes them very easy to take advantage of, as MNU seems wont to do. The aliens here aren't saviors, superior or anything like that, they're just alien.

In a similarity with Moon, a big storyline with the film is Multinational United, the security firm that has more corporate motives that surpass what is ethical or moral. In Moon, the company would just clone its worker, Sam Bell. In this film, they go a step further, experimenting with Prawns to attempt to utilize their energy weapons and technology. When Wikus is transformed, one executive notes that his one body will be worth billions to the company, and they go about vivisecting him before he escapes. Corporate greed and corruption seems to be an especially powerful theme these days, with companies such as Enron, Blackwater and bailed out banks still making the news.

But what really makes the film is Wikus. He is as unconventional a main character as I've ever seen. When we first see him, he is a small, quiet man being interviewed by an unseen camera man. He stumbles over his words, fiddles with objects and is easily distractible, and seems as surprised as everyone else in the room when it is announced that he will be in charge of the field operations of the mission. He reminds me of one of the characters from Monty Python, a clueless husband who doesn't realize that his beautiful wife is having sex with the marriage counselor in the same room while having a meeting. He is, essentially a mouse in a much larger world. This is evidently seen when he comes across one of the special operations teams, and butts heads with its leader, who shoves him out of the way.

With his accident, there is an emotional, as well as a physical and physiological change within him. As he is infected with the fluid that transforms him (and thus making him a target), Wikus is forced to go on the run and go against everything that he's known. While in a position of authority over the Prawns, he is essentially xenophobic, condescending and racist towards the aliens, but without any real intent - he operates as he always has, as he's always known. His dismissal of the aliens is casual, because that's what's expected of him. During and after his physical transformation, Wikus is thrust into a role that he never asked for, and never wanted. Chased by members of the criminal underworld and his own company, he seeks refuge in the only place that becomes available to him - District 9. He allys himself with the scientist who had the fluid in the first place, who, as it turns out, is attempting to leave the planet, and the fluid was a necessary component of his ship. The story progresses logically from here - faced with this need, the two pair up and liberate the fluid from MNU, and the action picks up.

Wikus's story is not necessarily the singular purpose of the film. Throughout, there is a much darker, and highly relevant theme of racism that really puts the film on the map. In the opening of the film, there is a sequence of events that turns the public tide against the aliens. All too often, the presence of extra-terrestrials visiting humanity have a dramatic effect - they are either invading, or they are here for humanity's rescue. In this instance, they are neither, and because of this, they are not wanted, by anyone. One person in the film says that if they were from a different country, it might be different, but they were from another world. In essence, this is an immigration issue of very different proportions, but an immigration issue none-the-less, and it is fascinating that this film came out of South Africa, which has so recently dealt with apartheid. Around the world, this film can come to represent the plight of immigrants. I can see people in Palestine, South Africa, the American southwest and numerous other places around the world relating to this sort of film, or at least gleaning some message from it.

I'm at a loss to see how this film was made for only $30 million dollars. It carries itself with a much more sophisticated and good looking appearance, from the complicated CGI of the aliens to the action scenes. This has the feel of a much larger movie, and I honestly hope that this film, along with Moon, will be the start of a much bigger trend towards more original science fiction on a smaller budget. What Blomkamp has done is put together a superior movie, blending the best in character development, overall message and unconventional storytelling that really makes District 9 a tribute to the genre. Like Moon, it takes common themes and turns them on their heads, creating a different movie, and because of that, we have a film that will no doubt be looked upon as a fantastic addition to Science Fiction.