There is no movie science more maligned than genetics. Geneticists are, with incredibly few exceptions, the modern Dr. Frankensteins, playing God in all the wrong ways, set to be struck down for their hubris. It’s so ubiquitous to media depictions of genetics—particularly anything in the world of genetic engineering—that Son of Monarchs feels the need to spend a scene addressing it, even though the film itself, which took home the Alfred P. Sloan prize at Sundance this past January, takes a refreshingly different stance, perhaps because writer-director Alexis Gambis actually has a background in science himself.
A strange truth about movies about insects and the scientists who study them is that the more real they get the weirder they get. So-called “Big Bug” movies about impossibly giant killer insects generally fit a Save the Cat type Hollywood formula perfectly, with well-defined heroes and villains (aka the big bugs), and a clearly delineated act structure culminating in a triumphant, decisive finale for the good guys. This is not a diss; some of these films are delightful. They just follow a formula, and they follow it quite closely.
Movies about more normal-sized insects doing more normal insect things (and the scientists who study them), on the other hand, get very bizarre very fast. There’s the weirdly evergreen horny entomologist canon that includes the likes of The Duke of Burgundy, Angels and Insects, and Kinsey. Then there’s The Hellstrom Chronicle, which holds the strange distinction of being one of the few fictional films to win an Oscar for Best Documentary. The whole lot of them are just a flock of odd ducks. (Bugs in animated movies are, to be clear, a whole other kettle of fish we’re not even going to talk about here; this detour has taken long enough already.)
Son of Monarchs is very much in keeping with this time-honored tradition. It is scientifically rather sound and narratively on the looser and more experimental side. The film centers a Mexican scientist none-so-subtly named Mendel (Tenoch Huerta Mejía)—as in, y’know, Mendelian genetics—who moved to the US to pursue his studies and now lives in New York, working on a research team investigating a gene that plays a key role in the pigmentation and patterning of butterfly wings. Huerta is tremendous in the role of Mendel. It’s not an easy character. The script does very little work to communicate his internal conflicts and emotional journey, really relying on Huerta to convey it all through his performance, and he delivers remarkably. Additionally, while Mendel is incredibly focused on his work, and at one point even does break with approved lab protocol, he is not a psychopath and at no point releases chimeric monsters onto an unsuspecting world, even though he uses CRISPR. This is unprecedented cinematic territory. It is glorious.
After being away for many years, the opening of the film sees Mendel returning to his hometown in Michoacán for the funeral of the grandmother who helped raise him, reuniting him with his estranged brother whose life took a very different path. The region is also home to swarms of monarch butterflies that migrate by the millions to the fir tree forests of the region every winter, generations removed from the forebears that headed north the previous spring. The academic interest that took Mendel away from his childhood home is also fundamentally tied to that place. As the narrative unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, with numerous flashbacks to Mendel’s childhood, butterflies become the ultimate proxy for the protagonist and the various dualities the story looks to explore, representing both his migration from home and his unbreakable ties to that place.
Son of Monarchs mines butterflies for symbolic value on every possible level, from subcellular minutiae to traditional lore. They come to represent the immigrant experience and the delicate balance of nature being destroyed by climate change; the keepers of alluring secrets finally made knowable through scientific advancement but also the embodiment of ephemeral ancient wisdom. This, in a way, is the core of the movie; it is perhaps better described as a thematic cluster of sequences than a cohesive singular narrative. Ironically, it’s a bit like watching a data set in the sense that while you can set a statistically significant trend line through the middle of it, there is definitely a noticeable margin of error. A couple of storylines feel particularly estranged from the rest. One outlier involves Mendel’s relationship with a white American immigration lawyer named Sarah (Alexia Rasmussen), who the film additionally makes a hobbyist trapeze artist in an attempt to make her feel more thematically relevant to butterflies because, well, flying. It is only partially effective, but A+ for effort. Another particularly disjointed subplot involves a tattoo that for a period threatens to drag the film into more outlandishly sci-fi or even body horror territory before it dissipates almost as abruptly as it appears.
Overall, the science is refreshingly authentic—the only feature I can recall off the top of my head to feature CRISPR gene editing prominently that includes accurate descriptions of the process and generally feels written by someone who actually knows what they are talking about. The lab in which Mendel is often shown working, and the work he is shown doing, looks the way it truly should, from the micropipettes to the army of caterpillars being reared individually in clear plastic condiment cups.
That being said, for as much as the science of it all is delightful, it does feel like the film could have done a bit more to make it accessible—not to simplify the concepts, but to address the “why” of it all more in addition to “how.” There is, for instance, a principal concept in genetics known as necessity and sufficiency. Basically, in order to properly demonstrate that a gene is actually responsible for a particular function in the way that is hypothesized, scientists are expected to demonstrate that it is both necessary (must be present for the thing to happen) and sufficient (if you express the gene somewhere it’s not supposed to be, it induces that outcome). Thus, the introductory genetics lab I took in college involved breeding mutant fruit flies that grew eyes all over their bodies, which is why these concepts are now burned in my brain forever. This logical framework is vaguely alluded to and is helpful to understand why Mendel is doing the various lab work we see him do but is never actually explained within the film.
At its best, Son of Monarchs is an enchanting visual poem, artistically somewhat abstract but buoyed by an underlying pattern and structure, not unlike the wing of a butterfly. At times, however, it does stumble into becoming something opaque and far more muddled. The halo effect is about as true for movies as it is for people, though, and for most of the runtime, these sins can not only be forgiven but more or less forgotten, because Alejandro Mejía’s cinematography is just so mesmerizingly pretty. Looking at a tree absolutely overwhelmed by a living coat of thousands of butterflies, at this stage, is more of a spectacle to a desensitized brain than watching any number of CGI skyscrapers/cities/planets explode.
However, as Son of Monarchs nears the end of its journey, the failure to really pick a favorite from among the various intriguing themes and ideas in which it dabbles becomes more prominent of an issue, culminating in an ending that feels less like a true conclusion so much as the movie just stopping. Still, while it can’t stick the landing, it’s got more than enough unique merits to make the film worth the trip.
Son of Monarchs is now streaming on HBO Max.
Image sources (in order of posting): Alejandro Mejia, WarnerMedia OneFifty