Synopsis – In a monster-infested world, Joel (Dylan O’Brien) learns his girlfriend is just 80 miles away. To make the dangerous journey, Joel discovers his inner hero to be with the girl of his dreams.
My Take – Originally titled Monster Problems, at first glance, this second feature from South African director Michael Matthews, which released VOD three days ago after Paramount Pictures was forced to scrap its theatrical release due to the ongoing pandemic, looked like any other post-apocalypse film, with noticeable inspirations from films like Zombieland, A Quite Place, and The Book of Eli, just with some YA vibes thrown in.
A fact cemented with the presence of Dylan O’Brien, who himself is no stranger to stories of apocalyptic adventure, as being the star of The Maze Runner trilogy, he has already faced off with more than his share of formidable foes.
However, what I didn’t anticipate from this film was the amount of heart it would possess. It’s sweet, it’s charming and it delivers a wonderful message of hope and perseverance that left me with a warm and fuzzy feeling that I definitely didn’t expect from a monster film.
Simply told, this one is your typical summer blockbuster, a delightful romp appealing for both adults and teens that might be drawn to this kind of story. In a short amount of time, the film manages to build an exciting world and establish a distinct tone with the use of clever animations and quip filled voice over from O’Brien.
Even in its apocalyptic state, the world of this story is a dazzling one and it is a true testament to writers Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson that they’re able to draw us in without much exposition. Making this is a perfect distraction and a highlight in an otherwise dismal 2020, and definitely a bummer considering that the only ‘safe’ way to watch this is at home.
The story follows Joel (Dylan O’Brien), a 24 year old surviving member of an apocalyptic event, which took place seven years ago, when the world’s governments successfully blew up an asteroid heading towards Earth, but the resulting explosion covered the planet in chemicals that mutated anything cold-blooded into gigantic human-eating monsters. Now with 95% of the human population wiped out, including Joel’s parents, the remaining survivors hide underground in colonies linked only by haphazard radio towers. With each member tasked with their own set of duties.
However, Joel finds himself often lonely, after all he is still pinning for Aimee (Jessica Henwick), his high school girlfriend, who he managed to track down using his colony’s radio. And when a breach leads to a loss of member, Joel decides to travel 80 miles on the surface to be with Aimee. With the odds stacked against him, and nearly every member of the colony rightfully arguing that he won’t last a day, Joel sets on a journey that sees him survive an occasional monster attack and befriend a dog, and fellow traveling duo Clyde (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt).
The script and direction is clever, tight, and well-structured, and while it doesn’t have the same depth as other apocalyptic tales do, but there’s no doubt its epic in scale and exciting from beginning to end. Instead the screenplay thrives by focusing in on the idealism and hope of its main character. Even when Joel is disappointed when things don’t go according to his plan, cynicism doesn’t settle in. Instead, he finds hope to move forward.
The feature never tries to be as funny or outrageous as most of the humor comes from Joel’s self-admitted awkwardness and insecurities, which many viewers will ultimately find endearing because he remains a humble person who’s a romantic at heart. The film is really a story of tackling monsters both real and in our heads, and while there isn’t a ton below the surface, it’s still a refreshingly heartfelt and light piece of work. Even the more predictable moments are spirited and energetic, with the film’s warmth driving home everything else.
What I really liked about the film is the way it treats living and non-living creatures. Boy the dog is given such agency, and even the A.I that is introduced, Mav1s (voiced by Melanie Zanetti), is remarkably empathetic and characterized well.
There also seems to be a solemn respect for nature, where Joel learns that not all creatures are out to kill you, and a little bit of kindness can go a long way. It may be a simple adventure story, but it has complex things to say about the world and a self-awareness not all dystopian narratives have.
Make no mistake, while the film is about hope and optimism in the face of insurmountable odds, it is also a film about destroying overgrown, mutated insects in the most ridiculous ways possible. And it is important to know that the monsters in this film are truly awesome. Equal parts gross and terrifying, when Joel faces down a giant frog, encounters a snail as big as a boulder, or falls into a nest of Sand Gobblers, it really feels like a life or death situation.
Sure, there are the occasional scenes where the lower budget leads to questionable CGI, but more times than not, the effects work surprisingly well. There’s an earnestness in the film that will have you so worried your favorite characters won’t survive, but that emotion carries you through the film and keeps you both on your toes and invested in the story-line.
That said, the film does take a sharp left and veer off into wannabe-blockbuster territory in the third act, when the stakes are quickly raised and the action goes from personal and intimate to something rivaling a modern superhero film. Though the film eventually regains its footing before the very end, the detour into good guy versus comically evil bad guy does lead to a lackluster climax that reeks of studio notes requiring a big battle at the end.
Nevertheless, the film belongs to the film’s leading man, Dylan O’Brien who elevates the material with a natural charm and sincerity that keeps audiences on his side throughout his arduous journey. This is O’Brien’s show and he absolutely kills it as the charming, funny, nervous, and unprepared Joel. It’s also an emotional performance for the actor, as his character is taken on a journey that makes him revisit loss and helps him to overcome fear and grief. His character may not have worked quite as well in the hands of another actor.
Michael Rooker continues to be a delight and his presence as a seasoned traveler, along with a plucky performance from Ariana Greenblatt, helps elevate and propel the film to greater heights. Though Jessica Henwick appears mostly in the final half of the film she excels. While Dan Ewing, Tre Hale and Ellen Hollman play the stereotypical villains plainly. On the whole, ‘Love and Monsters’ is a very entertaining crowd-pleaser that strikes an excellent balance between action, humor and heart.
Directed – Michael Matthews
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 109 minutes