Love and Monsters is a gutsy genre hybrid that blends scares with sentimentality, anchored by an “adorkably” appealing Dylan O’Brien.
Given all the terrors we’ve experienced thus far in 2020, a post-apocalyptic picture is probably the last thing most of us want to watch. When the whole world is seemingly minutes away from anarchy at all times, what joy can be found in a movie depicting the disintegration of human civilization as we know it? Luckily, Love and Monsters finds a path around this predicament by subverting the solemnity that so often plagues other post-apocalyptic stories (think The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Dylan O’Brien’s own The Maze Runner) and instead centering around compassion and the comfort of human connection, offering an openhearted optimism that is in such short supply nowadays.
This isn’t to say Love and Monsters is devoid of danger by any means – as one can assume from the title alone that Dylan O’Brien (MTV’s Teen Wolf, American Assassin) will have to contend with some hair-raising horrors throughout the course of this tale – but the film focuses first and foremost on the little things that make life worth living in spite of all these supplementary struggles, and for that, I can’t think of a better movie to meet our currently chaotic moment.
Seven years prior to the start of Love and Monsters, an apocalyptic event incited by an incoming asteroid led to the mutation of insects and amphibians across the world, transforming them into towering terrors that wiped out 95% of the Earth’s population. Those who survived this strife retreated underground in “colonies” spread out all around the planet, and this is where we find our unlikely hero, Joel Dawson (O’Brien). Joel’s parents were victims of the monsters’ initial attacks, and he was additionally separated from Aimee (Jessica Henwick, of Underwater and On the Rocks), his much-adored girlfriend, on the day that all Hell broke loose. Now, he is trapped with 37 other survivors who are not only much stronger than he is (and therefore better-equipped to handle the abominations that await outside) but who are also all paired with a romantic partner, leaving Joel as the odd man out, sulking through his “single” existence.
However, one day, he is able to remarkably reconnect with Aimee in her colony over a radio line out of the blue, catching up with the “one that got away” and sensing an adventurous spirit inside himself that he’d never known before. Despite his tendency to freeze up with fear in the face of these menacing monsters, Joel ignores both the cries of concern from his comrades in the colony and his own personal panic and decides to make the seven-day trek to Aimee’s shelter, winning back the woman he loves and hopefully weathering his own worries along the way.
Love and Monsters is the brainchild of screenwriter Brian Duffield (Spontaneous, The Babysitter), and as someone who has been known for mixing a medley of genres and tones and churning out idiosyncratic but immensely invigorating entertainment in the past, it’s obvious that the gloriously gutsy genre hybrid here is in good hands. Sometimes Love and Monsters is a simple slice-of-life lark set in a post-apocalyptic atmosphere, sometimes it’s a cheery and convivial comedy, sometimes it’s a harrowing horror flick, and, at its core, it’s actually a lively and luminous love story. Other writers would likely be asked to “reel in” their ambitions – as many would assume that it would be a titanic task to tackle one of these story threads, let alone four – but Duffield somehow skillfully synthesizes all this subject matter into one powerful and pleasing package, authentically earning our engagement at each and every turn and never once losing sight of the soul of this saga as a whole.
That soul would be Dylan O’Brien’s Joel, and O’Brien is able to brilliantly balance the many moods of the movie without a hitch while anchoring this adventure almost all by himself. Love and Monsters has the requisite riveting sequences of suspense as Joel is pursued by pugnacious pests of all shapes and sizes, but aside from these admittedly animated action scenes (which O’Brien expertly excels in, likely drawing on his experience with post-apocalyptic antagonists in The Maze Runner trilogy), O’Brien also spectacularly sells Joel’s sprouting self-confidence and steadiness. There are elements of the classic “what you’re looking for in life actually lies inside” character arc in Joel’s journey, but Duffield throws in some genuinely shocking and quite sobering surprises as well, all of which O’Brien is completely capable of conveying, evoking almost every emotion imaginable from the audience over the course of the film. We’ve been aware of O’Brien’s abilities as an action star for some time now, but here, he’s really able to convince us of his capabilities as both a comedic and romantic lead, and if he can maintain this momentum, there’s no telling what additional acting accomplishments he’ll be able to achieve.
While Joel’s isolation is imperative to his emotional evolution, Love and Monsters still finds space for a stellar supporting cast to crop up every now and then and infuse the film with some supplemental spunk. For starters, Joel is accompanied by a devoted and dauntless dog named Boy on his deeds above-ground, and O’Brien and Boy (characterized by canine actors Hero and Dodge) have a warm and winning chemistry that makes you believe in the meaning of “man’s best friend.” Boy is somehow a three-dimensional character in his own right as well, complete with a heart-breaking backstory and internal obstacles to overcome – a testament to Duffield’s well-thought-out writing and the accomplished assistance of animal trainers on set who brought out such energetic expressions from Hero and Dodge.
In terms of Joel’s non-canine companions, Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy, AMC’s The Walking Dead) and Ariana Greenblatt (Avengers: Infinity War, The One and Only Ivan) prove to be enormously amusing additions to the adventure as Clyde, a seasoned and stalwart survivalist, and Minnow, Clyde’s sweet-but-sassy nine-year-old sidekick, respectively. Clyde and Minnow are certainly better prepared to deal with the pains and problems of post-apocalyptic life than Joel – having adapted to the absurdity of it all over the past seven years – and they get a kick out of showing this awkward amateur the ropes (leading to some of the most side-splitting setpieces in the entire film), but there’s a credible cordiality to these characters as well, and the relationship they form with Joel feels raw and realistic as a result.
Rooker plays on the prickly persona that works so well in the Guardians films whilst supplementing this stuffiness with a newfound sincerity. Greenblatt initially appears wise behind her years with her cunning command in combat and some devilish dialogue, but she’s also able to illuminate her innate innocence beneath this steely surface when the moment demands it, reminding us of the real cost of the world’s ruination. In the end, though their time together is limited (due to the divergent directions they take on their personal pursuits above-ground), the lessons Joel learns from these two erratic, but endearing, eccentrics will last a lifetime, and their introduction into the narrative leaves quite an impact on him. As for Henwick’s Aimee, the settlement of this specific storyline is better left unsaid, but it’s no spoiler to state that Duffield has an unpredictable and unique way of upending our expectations and playing with our preconceived notions of a “happy ending.”
Director Michael Matthews (Five Fingers for Marseilles) has no trouble capturing the chaos of this corrupted climate and all the big-budget beasts that inhabit it, crafting terrifically thrilling tussles between Joel and the monsters. We palpably perceive the uncertainty and the urgency in every one of Joel’s encounters with these execrable enemies, and Matthews manages to make each monstrous disturbance feel distinct from the next, varying the chills we’ve come to see. A special shoutout must be bestowed upon the film’s valiant visual effects team, who create a collection of cartoonish yet creepy creatures that not only come off as authentic extrapolations of real-world animals but are also illustrated with imagination and inventiveness.
Love and Monsters is perfectly positioned as both a heartfelt and harrowing Halloween release and as an engaging and enlivening escape from the real-world terrors of today. Thanks to a sharp-witted and sentimental script from Brian Duffield, a laudable lead performance from Dylan O’Brien, a stupendous supporting cast, and a beautiful balance of humor and horror, Love and Monsters is a delightful cinematic diversion for audiences of all-ages, offering exciting entertainment can anyone can enjoy.