I’d sooner believe director Gareth Edwards had hired actual extra-terrestrials to make an appearance in his film Monsters, than accept the fact that he was able to construct them with his SFX-savvy and a measly budget of $500,000. Do you know how much $500,000 gets you in a typical Hollywood movie? You could pay for the first few minutes of Iron Man 2, or perhaps the first sixth of Paranormal Activity 2 (although I suspect much of that film’s $3 million budget went into the pockets of producers). Edwards, tallying up a bill the equivalent of one Hollywood executive’s evening at The Ivy, has created something magical. Monsters is an alien invasion movie that feels real and true, and that’s only partly thanks to the spectacular D.I.Y. special-effects. It’s anchored by two lead performances from Scoot McNairy and Whitney Able, who turn a post-apocalyptic road movie into an affecting romantic drama. It is the second movie arriving in Australian cinemas this week (Gasland is the other) to succeed where Eat Pray Love failed. Monsters is a believable journey of self-discovery. And it was made for the price of Eat Pray Love’s catering budget.

The film takes place in the ‘not too distant future’ (and as all sci-fi fans know, this vague period of time is often depicted as a hellscape of unimaginable terror). Aliens have arrived on Earth; specifically, on the border between Mexico and the United States. (What is the deal with aliens always invading politically incendiary locations? As if there wasn’t already enough tension between the U.S. and Mexico regarding their oft-crossed perimeter. At least these intergalactic life forms were wise enough to stay away from South Africa. But I digress.) The space invaders are gargantuan, electrified, jellyfish-esque monstrosities that stalk the land. They use their tentacles to tear cars in two and feast on the human treats inside. Understandably, the beasts have been quarantined to an area in Mexico known as the Infected Zone. But if Mexican immigrants were already risking their lives to illegally enter America, they’ve got plenty more reason to now that the monsters have turned their nation into a land of post-apocalyptic ruin.

McNairy stars as Andrew Kaulder, a photo-journalist eager to capture the terrifying realities of alien-torn Mexico on his camera. Not because it’s important for the historical record, but because his newspaper pays more for a picture of a dead child than a smiling one. Kaulder’s selfish-sojourn is interrupted when his powerful employer charges him with an important task: find his daughter Samantha (Able) and bring her home to America. Samantha and Kaulder hit it off fairly quickly, and a ferry is organised to help her cross the border. Of course, when their passports and tickets are snatched, they have no choice but to venture through the Infected Zone to find their way home. Obviously, it’s a terrible idea.

You’ll have no doubt picked up on the similarities between Monsters and other recent alien-invasion flicks such as Cloverfield (which was more of a rollicking action film) and District 9 (which was more of a social satire). Although Monsters has a fair number of intense moments, and makes a few fleeting comments on the immigration issue raging between the U.S. and Mexico, Edwards is more concerned with fleshing out the love-story between Kaulder and Samantha. It feels genuine; their friendship, their kinship, the moments and experiences they share. I wasn’t surprised to learn that McNairy and Able are married in real life. Credit must be offered to ingenious writer/director Edwards, who shot the film without location permissions and used a computer program to throw in the special effects after the fact. Monsters is a true spectacle, from its unsettling opening scene to its tremendous, awe-inspiring finale. And thrifty!