It’s a tale as old as time. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl when they’re separated by a monster apocalypse. Boy finds girl and undergoes a perilous quest to find her while dodging land sharks and giant crustaceans. We can all relate, right? But the surprising thing is that actually…yes we can, because Love and Monsters turns out to be comforting and familiar brain food.
The film opens with a brief primer on how we got here, narrated by our hero Joel (Dylan O’Brien). When a meteor is headed to Earth, the nations of the world band together to blow it up with rockets. Which works, except the chemical fall out from the rockets’ explosion rains down from the sky and mutates all cold-blooded creatures into giant monstrosities that subsequently kill 95% of the world’s population.
Seven years after that, Joel is living in an underground bunker with a group of survivors but feeling useless because he can’t help with raids and supply runs on account of a habit he has of freezing in the face of danger. He discovers his high school girlfriend is in a survivor outpost that’s a week’s journey from him and sets out on his own to reach her, even though the path is treacherous and filled with massive mutants that want to eat him. Along the way he meets allies that include a ridiculously smart dog named Boy, and a monster hunter named Clyde (Michael Rooker).
There is nothing terribly innovative or unexpected in the film’s plot. Most of its beats are imminently predictable, and it appears to have been written entirely by Chekhov. If Joel learns a fact about how the surface world works or picks up an odd item, you can bet those things will become important by the third act. Hell, you could just about make a checklist. At one point, Joel meets an abandoned robot who lists all the ways his journey could end, from the most to least ideal, and all of them contain varying levels of cliche.
But in the end that doesn’t turn out to be as bad of a thing as expected. There’s a kind of sincerity behind the film that pushes the familiar beats and tropes from derivative to oddly refreshing. There are elements from several different kind of movies thrown together here, including survival horror, indie sci-fi, and high-concept teenage rom-coms. When they’re mixed together, however, they make something sweet and infectious even if it isn’t wholly substantial.
Director Michael Matthews doesn’t do anything remarkably interesting with his frames, either, but everything is shot very competently. From a compositional standpoint, this is a very solid film if rarely a truly dynamic one. That’s not to say solid is bad. Matthews rarely resorts to cheap or unnecessary gimmicks, and his action scenes are edited with a sure and steady hand. Most of the film was shot in Australia, and outdoor scenes look gorgeous. A little extra flavor and signature in the movement and flow of things would have been appreciated, but what’s here leaves little to complain about.
One of the film’s two strongest components is its creature design, and this is where Matthews plays some of his strongest cards. The CGI is well done for the most part, but what shines through is the thought behind how creatures would mutate. A giant toad moves slowly and unevenly on legs that didn’t grow uniformly. A giant snail has a shell resembling the side of a cliff with an oddly adorable face full of eyestalks. A giant crab is terrifying in its ferocity while also possessing a primal, Atlantean beauty. A lot of thought went into creating a world full of monsters that resembled our real world taken to a kind of absurd extreme. Matthews is great at filling scenes with creatures, too, either lurking in shadows or doing their own thing on the edge of the frame.
The coolest-looking monsters in the world aren’t anything if there aren’t humans to square off against them, and this is where the film really shines. In fact, it’s the excellent cast that helps sell the otherwise familiar material. Dylan O’Brien is oddly charming as Joel, although it takes a bit to warm up to the character. This is very much a first-person narrative, with almost nothing being shown outside of Joel’s immediate experience. There’s even a voice-over monologue that pops in from time to time that becomes more welcome as the film runs on. This isn’t O’Brien’s first time at the post-apocalyptic rodeo, and like the Maze Runner films, he manages to sell his character and the predicament he’s in with ease.
Michael Rooker might be the MVP of the story, however. His Clyde is a warm, grizzled hunter traveling with a precocious, highly-capable 8-year-old named Minnow played by Ariana Greenblatt. Clyde and Minnow deserve their own movie because their chemistry is real and fantastic. Rooker’s no-nonsense father figure and Greenblatt’s cynical-but-endearing child warrior are a delight to watch. One of the biggest flaws of the film is that fact that they aren’t on screen for longer than they are.
Despite all the predictable and familiar steps the story takes us through, the ending doesn’t feel forced despite the sudden appearance of a third act protagonist who takes the story into a sharp and shaky turn. There’s still a warm, odd kind of comfort here, a kind of emotional vein that feels mostly organic. It’s not 100% natural, but it’s close enough to pass for it when it hits the brain like a pleasant memory. It might not be the most substantial of meals, but it still satisfies, even if but for a moment.
FBOTU Score: 7 out of 10 / B
Love and Monsters can be streamed at home through Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Vudu, and Fandango Now.