Gareth Edwards, a visual-effects brainiac from Britain, has, in his writing and directing debut, delivered a deft existential road movie, a muted romance, and, above all, a sci-fi allegory with giant squidlike creatures thumping around Mexico, cutting a deadly path to the walled borders of the United States.
These tendriled behemoths are the titular Monsters, and the way they yelp and moan (think distressed elephants) and overturn pickup trucks and knock down buildings is a scary thing.
Just remember, folks: If a NASA probe finds alien life forms in space, it's not a good idea to bring DNA samples back to Earth.
Beginning in central Mexico, where swaths of the country are now cordoned-off Infection Zones, Monsters is a deceptively simple, beautifully photographed yarn. (This is a lush, colorful dystopia, not the washed-out post-apocalypse of The Road.) Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), an American photojournalist documenting the post-invasion ruins, gets a last-minute and unwanted assignment: escort his media-baron boss' daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), back to safety.
At first, it's just a matter of seeing her onto a boat, or a plane, but things get complicated quickly when toxic alien microbes are in the air - not to mention the toxic aliens themselves.
With its indie vibe and ingenious effects, Monsters is more than a little remindful of District 9, though the 2009 South African sleeper had a sense of humor about it; Monsters, in the end, is bleak business.
And so, Andrew and Sam make their way via bus and ferry, thumb and foot, through verdant jungles and ruined towns. There are hired guns to escort them for a while, and a river skiff captain and his sidekick, but you know how these things go. . . . Ultimately, Andrew and Sam find themselves alone - and there's a magical moment when they find a Mayan pyramid in the middle of nowhere, and clamber to its top.
Lamentably, there's not much chemistry evident between McNairy and Able. But in a way, the absence of movie-star heat only makes the despair and loneliness that the actors' characters are going through more palpable.
And pay close attention to the opening night-vision scene, if you will. Monsters, like a serpent eating its own tail, comes back on itself in ways that haunt, and hurt.