Note: Big honking spoilers in this one, folks. Consider thyself forewarned.
Part of me wants admire director Gareth Edwards' 2010 feature-film debut Monsters. Shot for a mere eight-hundred-thousand dollars, it still manages to capture haunting shots of a post-apocalyptic Mexico and populate nighttime skylines with massive aliens that look like the dread Cthulhu took a detour through a 1950's Japanese disaster movie. Despite containing only two professional actors, the cast turns in consistently engaging performances. And the plot itself proves particularly audacious, preferring meditation on loss, love, and wartime ethics instead of the expected rampaging-abomination-demolishes-everything-in-its-path action.
Of course, I'd have an easier time liking it if it didn't lie to me in its opening scene.
I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me explain what Monsters is all about. The film opens with a description of how a space probe's breakup over Mexico introduced alien life into the ecosystem, causing half the country to be quarantined. A grainy night-vision recording of a humvee pops in, accompanied by audio of soldiers shouting about finding "one male and one female." One soldier sings the melody from Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries." Then the truck flips, a towering monstrosity looms above, and someone screams continuously for help. A radioman calls in an airstrike while a distant dispatcher drones about collateral damage. Cut to a missilecam zooming in on the alien creature, only we get the title when the two meet instead of the expected boom. Next comes a shot of a sweaty, unshaven man poking around a half-demolished commercial structure. He is photojournalist Andrew Kaulder, and he knows something big hit the property. However, he doesn't know what happened to Samantha Wynden, his boss' daughter whom he's been tasked with finding. Eventually, he finds her receiving treatment for a broken wrist in a rundown hospital. Now he only has to lead her home across hundreds of miles of alien-infested terrain.
Seems simple enough, right? Monster appears, monster gets blown up, girl gets hurt in explosion, boy finds girl, boy leads girl to safety, boy and girl start to fall in love. (Hardly a spoiler; you can tell what will transpire between them by the fifteen-minute mark.) But that's not what happens at all. Though Edwards' cinematography initially implies that interpretation, he's actually pulled a directorial sleight of hand: Chronologically, the first scene is the last one, a fact only realized upon hearing "The Ride of the Valkyries" once again in the final few minutes of runtime. Instead of narrowly escaping the destruction of the giant alien, the protagonists get obliterated by high explosives.
There's nothing necessarily wrong with a story having a red-herring intro. The Sixth Sense opened with a Corker by letting viewers assume that Dr. Malcolm Crowe recovered from his gunshot. Ditto for The Usual Suspects, which allows you to think that Verbal Kint is merely a small-time crook grudgingly answering questions at the behest of a hard-nosed interrogator. The difference is that those two stories gave audiences ample opportunity to uncover their deceit, strewing hints left and right. Not so with Monsters. If you don't note the melody or the significance of the soldiers speaking English, you'll miss the twist entirely (or at least until the very end) and that seems intentional. Storytellers need to understand that upending expectations is fine, but you shouldn't perjure yourself in your set up.
(Picture: CC 2012 by Tim)