True to the film theory that what you don’t see is always more suspenseful than what you do, Gareth Edwards’ first feature pays off in proverbial spades.

The low-budget yet spectacular-looking film follows photojournalist Kaulder (Scoot McNairy) as he escorts his publisher’s daughter, Sam (Whitney Able), from Mexico back to the United States. This is easier said than done, because a good chunk of the land in between the two countries has been deemed the “infection zone,” the area hardest hit by the after-effects of a space probe accident that sprayed that portion of Earth with extraterrestrial samples six years ago.

The result of that? This is not a spoiler, since you’ll see them in the opening credits (not to mention the Blu-ray’s cover art), but the alien creatures look like giant octopi, towering over the skyline as they walk atop spindly legs not unlike the invaders from “The War of the Worlds.” But the movie is not about the creatures attacking and laying waste; it’s about the perilous journey of our two protagonists. So caught up was I in their story that at some point, I actually forgot creatures were even involved.

It speaks highly of Edwards’ decision to craft his film with such a loose, improvisational structure that I would’ve been happy without seeing the creatures at all. “Monsters” has drawn comparisons to “Cloverfield” and “District 9,” but neither are apt, other than taking a creative approach to a well-worn genre; this is very much its own thing, and viewers will not get what they expect from the trailer. That’s a good thing, for how tired the movie would be to follow such a familiar, story-by-numbers template. Instead, expect to be moved. Yes, moved.

For $800,000, “Monsters” looks like 10 times that, featuring stunning cinematography of five countries in which the film was shot, matched tonally by a beautiful, understated score by Jon Hopkins that at times recalls the minimalist moodscapes of Steve Reich, contributing greatly to an overall palpable vibe of awe and vulnerability. As the leads, McNairy and Able exhibit a winning, quiet chemistry (they’re now married, incidentally), playing their roles without vanity or showiness. It helps that they’re both unknowns, but I expect that to change.

“Monsters” is a rarity among genre efforts today: a monster movie in which it’s the humans with whom you wish to spend screen time. For that reason alone — although they are many others — this one comes highly recommended. —Rod Lott