Monsters opens Friday in select theaters (see times below)

Our rating:

Gareth Edwards’ often alluring Monsters is an ambitious effort at making an indie sci-fi road trip film. The premise: In the near future, North America is besieged by extraterrestrial creatures who arrived when a spaceship that was carrying biological specimens back from abroad broke up upon re-entry over Mexico. The “creatures” are basically giant squids that seem to live in water, air and land. Fortunately for us, and the film’s two characters, we don’t see them too oftenthey’re more hinted at than revealed.

The two humans at the center of the story are Americans stuck in Mexico, which has been quarantined entirely as an “infected zone.” Andrew (Scoot McNairy) is a cynical, world-weary photojournalist who is on a mission to retrieve his publisher’s daughter, a willowy blonde named Sam (Whitney Able), who has been wandering in Mexico on some kind of rich-girl sulk. She’s engaged to a rich jerk and her lack of enthusiasm is palpable.

If you think you might have seen this movie before, it’s actually the setup of It Happened One Nightand many, many wedding-themed romantic comedies since. If you want brazen sexual chemistry, ping-pong wit and well-crafted supporting characters, you’d better stick with Frank Capra’s film. Monsters is ultimately more in the apocalyptic vein of so many films of recent yearsDistrict 9 and The Road are obvious corollaries. However, much of the action of Monsters passes in a dreamily filtered Third World travelogue as Andrew and Sam (whose expensively layered haircut remains suspiciously well-coiffed throughout) try to escape the infected zone and sneak back into the United States.

The film was made on the fly in Mexico with a crew of four carrying lightweight equipment and its two-person main cast improvising much of the dialogue. As a matter of aesthetics, I appreciate the way Edwards is willing to separate his images from his dialoguemuch of it is, in fact, overdubbed and nonsynchronous. But his actors, both relative unknowns, aren’t able to transcend their generic television-actor looks. Their characters’ back stories (he wants to reconnect with his 6-year-old son; she wants to be independent of Daddy) are as standard-issue as their “improvised” dialogue, which seems to be remembered from a thousand other movies and television shows.

Even if we don’t much buy Andrew and Sam as characters, the film achieves a semblance of thematic grandeur in its final scenes, when our travelers reach the U.S.–Mexico border. Thanks to digital effects, we see fortifications appropriate to a medieval city. America’s efforts to keep out invaders from the South has reached new heights of desperation. By traveling below the border, Monsters succeeds in taking us through the looking glass.