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When ominous title cards describe extraterrestrial visitors to Earth, it’s usually a good sign that what follows is rife with action and otherworldly viscera. Gareth Edwards, the writer/director of Monsters, must be aware of this expectation, as his feature debut embraces basic tenets of creature features while subverting others. Made on a shoestring budget of $20,000, his special effects are nonetheless polished. I have no idea how he accomplished his more eye-grabbing shots, and it’s impressive how he handles them along with the creatures themselves. Still, sci-fi fans may be disappointed to that the crux of Edwards’ movie is not an alien versus human battle, but a budding romance amidst heavy-handed symbolism.

Aliens from our solar system have infiltrated northern Mexico, and the US built a massive wall to keep them from crossing the border (I wasn’t kidding about the heavy-handedness). The area is becoming more unsafe, so an unseen media mogul asks photographer Andrew (Scoot McNairy) to scoop up his daughter Sam (Whitney Able) and bring her back to safety. As they wait for the last ferry out of Mexico, they flirt and get to know each other. He’s the cynic who’s seen it all; she’s a rich girl who feels trapped by her father’s expectations. Andrew and Sam miss the ferry, of course, so they arrange to illegally trek through the infected zone where the creatures are known to wander. Along the way north, they encounter the expected death and destruction, which is a catalyst for their newfound trust and affection.

The relationship between Andrew and Sam is key to Monsters’ success, yet Edwards’ lukewarm screenplay never generates a real spark. The actors aren’t necessarily to blame. You make recognize Scoot McNairy from In Search of a Midnight Kiss, where he also plays a world-weary loner who develops affection for a blonde over a short period, so it’s no surprise he has the chops to handle a character like Andrew. And Whitney Able generates sympathy by imbuing Sam with grace under pressure (it also helps that she is stunningly beautiful). Even with what they offer, Edwards’ script lacks energy, and there are no moments where we feel the connection between his characters. By riffing on movies like The African Queen, he relies on more successful predecessors to do the heavy lifting. There are aspects to Monsters, however, that are an astonishing success. Even a mega-budget director would be envious of the shots and creepiness Edwards is capable of generating. During ham-fisted cries of alarm, an assault on a caravan generates considerable tension. Shots of a forgotten temple and the monolithic wall are quietly haunting. The superb sound design is instrumental in building atmosphere. Unfortunately, his financial triumph does not compensate for storytelling shortcomings.

Despite my misgivings, part of me can’t help but recommend Monsters. With two mostly likable leads, I was won over by Edwards’ ambition and earnestness. There’s a message about humanity and fear, and while I wouldn’t describe it as nuanced, it’s certainly more subtle than a sledgehammer. I’m not sure who the right audience for this movie is. Horror and sci-fi fans will be disarmed by the lack of gore. Romance fans will be disarmed by the abundance of dead bodies. Like Red, maybe Monsters is another unlikely date movie. There is enough here even for couples with unaligned tastes, though I suspect their final complaints will be wildly different.

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