By Jonathan Monovich.
Despite its imperfections as an introductory feature film, fans of the sci-fi, horror, and adventure genres will walk away with a smile and will want to believe.”
“We all know conspiracies are dumb.” Knowing his extraterrestrial obsessions, it’s a lyric sung ironically by Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge in the song “Aliens Exist.” A telling of a young man’s supposed encounter with aliens and his difficulty proving it, the track serves as a double entendre in exploring both aliens and alienation. In his directorial/screenwriting debut, Monsters of California, DeLonge expands upon the themes of this authorially personal 1999 track. The film’s protagonist, Dallas (Jack Samson), serves as a filmic extension of the subject of “Aliens Exist.” Both characters live in isolation, both are surrounded by skepticism, both are stricken with fear, and it is their curiosity for the unknown that guides them through their disjointed lives.
Monsters of California is initially presented as a film that should not be taken seriously. This is evidenced by the buffoonery of its leading characters and their outlandish escapades through Encinitas, California. Alongside Dallas are his two slacker buddies: Toe (Jack Lancaster) and Riley (Jared Scott). Sharing interests in skateboarding, punk rock, and the paranormal, the three outsiders band together on a ghost hunt in “trying to explain the unexplainable.” While Toe, the group’s neurotic beach bum, and Riley, the trio’s amenable instigator, are horrified by their confrontation with an angry spirit, Dallas is left invigorated. It soon becomes obvious where Dallas’ fixation with the otherworldly comes from when revealed that his father, now missing for three years, worked for the confidential “Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program” (AATIP). After discovering a GPS loaded with mysterious coordinates in his garage, Dallas convinces his friends to join him in an adventurous search for answers. Having already followed the coordinates of his late father’s notebook to see an apparition, Dallas is convinced that the GPS will serve as a guide to the long unanswered question inescapable from his mind—what happened to dad? Knowing his mother (Arianne Zucker) and sister (Camille Kostek) have seemingly moved on and that they are unwilling to explore unconventional possibilities, Dallas embarks on this journey without their support.
After learning of his nephew’s quest for discovery, Dallas’ uncle, Myers (Casper Van Dien), also a member of the AATIP, sends a team to survey him. Like most teenage road films, Monsters of California weaves in a romance subplot amidst the chaos of the crossings. Dallas finds love with Kelly (Gabrielle Haugh), and the two bond over the loss of one father and the impending loss of another. Together, they help one another to see the importance of perception/intention and that reality is ultimately a reflection of how one chooses to feel. Through the hills, Dallas and his compadres face strange abnormalities and an estranged doctor (Richard Kind) who aids them in their pursuits. The setup is there, there are glimmers of joy, and the film is one that you want to root for as it craves to channel related genre films, but Monsters of California ultimately doesn’t quite work as intended. Regardless, DeLonge offers a viewing experience that is fun-spirited in nature and shows promise as a musician turned director/screenwriter.
Monsters of California seems to strive to have traces of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), The Monster Squad (1987), and Ghostbusters (1984), though it lacks the spectacle of these films. Steven Spielberg, Fred Dekker, and Ivan Reitman all embraced the strange subject matter of these films to leave viewers with remembrance of the creatures and simultaneously connect with the humans. DeLonge’s choice in primarily focusing on the potty humor that DeLonge’s band, Blink-182, has become somewhat known for over the years ends up becoming a distraction from trying to do something similar. When the film delves into dramatic territory and Monsters of California tries to say something profound, it becomes discredited by its boyish buildup. Like many contemporary films, Monsters of California lacks subtlety. Whereas the great alien and monster movies deliver their messages via unspoken metaphors, Monsters of California offers a monologue in its conclusion that is forthright and unambiguous, suggesting there was a lack of faith that viewers would be able to figure it out on their own.
Though well-intentioned and an effort of self-expression for DeLonge, Monsters of California unfortunately ends up being less effective than his song “Aliens Exist.” DeLonge is clearly very passionate about the film’s subject matter, but perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the film is that music doesn’t play a bigger role. The most prominent music references are band logos for the Dead Kennedys, Blondie, and the Police upon the characters’ t-shirts and posters for the Sex Pistols and the Descendents covering the walls of their bedrooms, but the music of these groups never makes it into the soundtrack. The incorporation of these influential bands along with his own music would have helped solidify the tone/feel that DeLonge was trying to achieve. Music was naturally at the forefront of DeLonge’s vision, but he was likely confined by budgetary constraints. Despite its imperfections as an introductory feature film, fans of the sci-fi, horror, and adventure genres will walk away with a smile and will want to believe.
Jonathan Monovich is a Chicago-based writer and Image Editor for Film International, where he regularly contributes. His writing has also been featured in Film Matters, Bright Lights Film Journal, and PopMatters.