PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 March, 2011, 12:00am

Starring: Scoot McNairy, Whitney Able
Director: Gareth Edwards
Category: IIA (English and Spanish)

After title cards which explain, in the film's parallel universe, how northern Mexico has become an 'infected zone' filled with alien life forms, Monsters begins with a sequence shot in night vision and seen from the point of view of a member of a US platoon. Driving through deserted streets, a soldier off-screen begins to hum a melody. 'Everybody needs a theme song,' his friend cheerily quips - before some gigantic thing emerges from the dark, flips everything over, and condemns the video-feed to darkness.

This three-minute opening salvo contains the key which allows for a proper understanding of Monsters - but it has nothing to do with the grainy camerawork (this is not Cloverfield) or the deadly intervention of menacing, destructive other-worldly beings (this is hardly an aliens-bring-Armageddon flick, as the literal interpretation of the film's title might suggest).

Rather, it's the tune which gives the game away. By having the soldier humming Ride of the Valkyries - the tune which famously soundtracks a US helicopter's decimation of Vietnamese villages in Apocalypse Now - director Gareth Edwards intimates his film's true colours as more an heir to Francis Ford Coppola's piece. Just as Coppola's piece uses the cover of a Vietnam War epic to reinterpret Joseph Conrad's psychological journey into the heart of human darkness, Monsters deploys sci-fi tropes to explore both the mental state of the film's two fragile protagonists and the sociopolitical circumstances which probably account for their psyche.

Not that Monsters can rival Apocalypse Now in its intensity and scope - but there's just so much Edwards probably could have done with a US$500,000 budget and a seven-strong crew he led for three weeks on location shooting across Central America and Texas. Edwards' skills are instead showcased by employing wit and inventiveness to compensate for this lack of resources, as he drives his road movie with just enough visual panache and, more importantly, sharp allegories.

Lost in Mexico are Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a cynical journalist trying to take photographs of alien-ravaged carcasses, and Sam (Whitney Able), Andrew's employer's seemingly spoiled brat of a daughter whose holiday was cut short by an impending confrontation between the US and the extra-terrestrials. Unable to return home by air or sea, the pair are forced to cross the 'infected zone' to reach the US.

Rather than a straightforward alien thriller, Monsters is more a piece of human drama, as Andrew and Sam look into themselves and at each other for comfort and insight. What hovers above in the sky and lurks in the forest serves as a backdrop for the evolution of their relationship. It's a mood piece more than anything else, and the absence of full-fledged characterisation and bombastic alien attacks are just small blots in what is essentially an engaging film.

Monsters opens today