The cost of a ticket is exactly the same regardless of a film's budget, but American consumers still love a bargain. So while we're flattered by an extravaganza like, say, Avatar, an effective film made on a shoestring hits us in an entirely different pleasure center. Monsters, a hip, moody science-fiction film made for a reported $500,000, triggers that happy belief in the can-do spirit.
The setting is Mexico, several years after aliens were inadvertently brought to Earth by a bungled NASA mission. Andrew Kaulder (Scoot McNairy), a photographer with the New World Citizen newspaper at least in sci-fi, print lives! is trolling the alien zone south of the border for the only images his editors crave: photos of children mangled by the enormous monsters.
Kaulder, who aspires to be dashing and occasionally succeeds, is soon ordered to find and return his boss's comely daughter Sam (Whitney Able), who has been mysteriously dodging her fiancé in Mexico a more appealing assignment than hunting for tiny corpses, you'd think. But Kaulder doesn't want to leave the story and grumbles for much of the journey north until he warms to Sam's icy, pert prettiness.
Making Mexico the epicenter of alien invasion sets up a hardly subtle statement about illegal immigration. The monsters, who look like the offspring of giant squid and the AT-AT walkers from The Empire Strikes Back (and whose CGI effects were created on a laptop by writer-director Gareth Edwards) head north looking for mates, prompting the U.S. to throw up an enormous wall. Good luck with that, Uncle Sam.
Edwards provides a steady stream of tension and doom, yet the overall mood is almost dreamy. There's more resignation than pandemonium; this may be the gentlest creature feature ever. Sam and Kaulder respond accordingly, witnessing horrific carnage one night and enjoying the sunset from a Mayan ruin the next, while musing about how different America looks from the outside. That, in fact, is the one scene in this quietly appealing film that feels low budget.
This article originally appeared in the November 8, 2010 issue of TIME.