Sets sights on love in the time of alien apocalypse

‘Monsters’’ is a genuine curio: a moody, low-budget road-movie romance that takes place against a background of alien invasion. Creature-feature fanatics expecting a full dose of extraterrestrial mayhem are going to be more than disappointed; they’ll be enraged, as the highly entertaining user comments at the movie’s page indicate. Calibrate your expectations accordingly, and understand that that title just ain’t fair. What you get for your $10 and what writer-director Gareth Edwards got for his half-million is a little labor of literal love.

The time is some years in the future, well after a space probe returning with samples of alien life has broken up over Mexico. The country’s northern half is a quarantined “infected zone’’ in which the beasties — huge, squiddly behemoths glimpsed in news footage and home videos — rampage across the landscape. For all that, the damage from US Air Force flights raining bombs and gas on an innocent Mexican populace is measurably worse.

So far, so very “District 9.’’ “Monsters,’’ though, focuses on two young Americans thrown together as they head for the US border: Sam (Whitney Able), the level-headed daughter of a powerful media tycoon, and Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photographer for one of her dad’s magazines who reluctantly agrees to get baby girl out of the country.

They travel by train, bus, and foot; they could have caught a ferry for $5,000, but Andrew’s misadventures one drunken evening put a stop to that, a development Sam responds to with inexplicable good cheer. But everybody in “Monsters’’ seems philosophical about the coming apocalypse. “Do you feel safe here?’’ Sam asks a local cabbie. “Where else would we go?’’ he shrugs.

The movie’s more fascinating for its ambitions than for what it accomplishes. Edwards, a digital effects maven directing his first feature, keeps the squids in the deep background, and we sense their power only when a tentacle raises a downed fighter jet above the waters of a quiet lagoon or lifts a Range Rover into the trees. That air of imminent menace informs the relationship between the two leads, who head up-country and toward intimacy in terse silence. (The original score by Jon Hopkins is very good at filling in the emotional gaps.) A scene in which Sam and Andrew spend the night atop an ancient Meso-American ruin within view of the towering US border wall is eerily, inarticulately poetic.

Yet the main characters are finally too shallow (and Able is too starlet-pretty) to engage us over the long haul; the Mexicans they meet during their travels are much more interesting. That air-brushed entitlement is partly the point: “Once we’re on the other side, it’ll be so easy to forget all this,’’ Andrew reassures Sam toward the end. “Monsters’’ wants to be an allegory about American self-absorption or the panic over immigration or something; exactly what is never very clear. If the real monsters are supposed to be us — a metaphor the film’s majestic climactic image makes explicit — on the evidence here, we just aren’t scary enough.

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