It’s surprising for something as wide-reaching and effects-heavy as Love and Monsters to sneak in a release so under the radar, but I suppose that’s to be expected now with Covid-19 continuing to shut down theaters and forcing studios to shuffle around release schedules. With Paramount cancelling its theatrical debut, this post-apocalyptic, young adult-geared road trip movie hit video on demand on October 16th, and deserves a bit more buzz than it’s getting. Directed by South African filmmaker Michael Matthews, Love and Monsters has plenty of charm, humor, and a surprising amount of emotional depth to boot.
The film follows Joel (Dylan O’Brien), a typical teenage boy whose pleasant life with his high school sweetheart, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), is drastically changed when an asteroid arrives to strike Earth. Delivered via a nonchalant voiceover, Joel explains how the people of this planet do what they do best and shot as many missiles at the thing as possible, sending it to kingdom come. This became the catalyst for an entirely different problem: chemicals from the explosion rained down onto the planet and animals began to mutate into giant and horrifying creatures (why humans wouldn’t also be affected by this, I have no idea). Things go to hell fairly quickly – cockroaches can now take on tanks, the president of the United States is eaten by a giant moth (fought the urge to make a joke here), and the vast majority of human life is wiped out.
Seven years have passed since then, and most survivors now live in scattered and isolated underground bunkers. Joel, who freezes up whenever he so much as thinks about the monsters waiting outside, isn’t much use as a member of his colony besides being the residential chef. The jobs of hunting and defending against breaches go to much braver folks, but there’s one other reason why Joel feels a bit left out in his bunker: he’s the only single person there. Yes, everyone else is banging except for him, so it should come to no surprise when he decides to set out in search of Aimee, who got separated from him when the apocalypse hit. It’s a week long journey, and Joel has a lot to learn about survival in this new monster-filled world if he’s going to make it to his long-lost love.
There’s obviously a bunch that needs to be established in Love and Monsters, like the world its set in, its rules, and of course, its monsters. But Matthews is able to get through all of this with ease, keeping exposition brief and using quick flashbacks throughout the film to show Joel’s life as disaster began to strike. Those flashbacks also reveal why exactly Joel freezes up so badly in the face of danger, and when paired with O’Brien’s exceptionally strong performance, it turns what could’ve easily been a very plain and dull protagonist into a well-rounded character with a strong emotional backbone. Unfortunately, the film’s brisk pace is a double-edged sword, keeping the supporting characters at arm’s length, and the relationships between them and Joel never feel well enough established for later moments in the story to work as well as they need to.
The film keeps things light and breezy for the most part; the closest thing to it might be 2009’s Zombieland. The resemblance is especially uncanny once Joel runs into a pair of survivors named Clyde (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), who teach him essential survival rules and how to deal with specific monsters. There are a lot of jokes, and while the movie may not be side-splitting hilarious, the humor and wit is much appreciated in place of the usual self-seriousness that you’d normally get from YA, post-apocalyptic fiction. Matthews is also able to switch the mood on a dime, going from laughter to genuinely harrowing scenes of a teary-eyed Joel running from monsters without it ever feeling like tonal whiplash.
Love and Monsters is nothing short of a delight, even if it doesn’t offer anything particularly groundbreaking. The story’s twists and turns may be a bit predictable, but there’s still a lot of originality to be found in the world it takes place in and the monsters who inhabit it. The creatures themselves look consistently great and their designs – like a “Boulder Snail” or “Night Jellies” that light up the darkened sky – are pretty cool and imaginative. The plot is kept relatively small in scale, which is refreshing, and even though the film thankfully doesn’t attempt to get ahead of itself and try to set up sequel fodder, it leaves you wanting more of the monster world. There are surely other adventures that are waiting to be had, whether they’re about Joel or not, and that’s a welcome feeling to have in a movie landscape already oversaturated by franchises.