Can a movie still be great if it has to beat you over the head with its message? This is a question I’m asking myself this week in response to two new films, “Monsters,” which opened modestly in limited release over the weekend, and “127 Hours,” which debuts in a few theaters this Friday. I really like both, the former more than the latter, but I can’t ignore the fact they each could have been a lot subtler. I can’t rightly complain too much about works featuring very on-the-nose denouements. I do love Frank Capra, after all, and though he was subtle enough politically to be often confused for a New Deal Democrat, or even an outright “comrade” by the Soviets, he does have a number of films with spelled-out messages, such as the title-reinforcing monologue by Lionel Barrymore at the end of “You Can’t Take It With You.” I’m also a huge fan of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
So it’s not out of form for me to appreciate a movie like “Monsters” and be totally against the critics panning it primarily on account of its obviousness. Yes, it’s extremely pronounced in its intentions. We easily understand within minutes the allegory that alien creatures being quarantined in Northern Mexico are representative of would-be immigrants. The map showing the “infected zone” makes it clear enough. From there the rest of the film can be enjoyed with that in mind. Do we need the excruciatingly on-the-nose dialogue later on that reminds us, particularly when we’re already looking at a giant wall constructed along the exact border of Mexico and the U.S.? Probably not, but I don’t think it’s enough to disregard the rest of the film, its impressive and minimal effects spectacle, its universal theme of finding beauty in what others have bastardized, its classic road trip love story involving a couple who initially hate each other.
It’s fitting I guess that the central romantic plotline of “Monsters” recalls Capra’s “It Happened One Night.” Of course that’s one of his less on-the-nose works made prior to his goal to produce message films. Still, I don’t see “Monsters” as necessarily a message film either. It uses some obvious allegory for its foundation, but it also doesn’t have a character come out and say something like, “hey that wall can keep out illegal immigrants, too!” Nor is there any heavy-handed correlation made to those visuals that pretty obviously evoke the wreckage of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Given the connection to documentary filmmaking we can make with “Monsters,” a certain forthrightness would nonetheless seem appropriate.
As for “127 Hours,” which also includes a fair share of documentary elements, this latest film from Danny Boyle is even more straightforward in its communication of a message. Though Boyle has stated he intends it to be about hope and rebirth, the real point made by the film is that Aron Ralston (James Franco) should have been a more social person. We can get this overt theme from the opening credits sequence, which employs a terrific tri-split screen featuring shots of a solo Ralston contrasted against footage of large crowds on subways and in stadiums. It’s really one of the best Eisensteinian sequences put into a mainstream movie in a long time. But it’s also quite clear right away what the film is saying about isolationist individuals like Ralston. So we don’t need too many reminders, and we certainly could do without the character’s spoken epiphany that he knows his solitary lifestyle is what has done him in (as if God has pinned his hand under a rock as punishment) and that he promises if he ever gets out that he’ll be more social and have less of a do-it-all-alone mentality.
I groaned when that epiphany came, yet the film has enough going for it — including the do-it-alone-amputation sequence that’s been making people faint at screenings — to disregard the too-on-the-nose verbal confirmation of what we already should comprehend. I also reminded myself that much broad entertainments can be enjoyed in spite of their heavy-handedness. “Avatar,” “Machete,” “Toy Story 3,” “The Social Network,” “Easy A,” “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and “Micmacs” are all fiction features I’ve liked a lot in the past year that are also pretty upfront with their messages, even if they don’t all literally spell out their primary theme or moral the way “127 Hours” does. And historically there have been many others. So perhaps we should put a moratorium on criticizing films simply for being so transparent and direct?