Dylan O’Brien capably fronts Love and Monsters, a likable doomsday comedy with a lot more going for it than you might expect.
This review of Love and Monsters is spoiler-free.
The end of the world hardly seems like an appropriate topic for laughs, especially giving current goings-on, but Michael Matthews’ Love and Monsters, now streaming on Netflix, proves that you shouldn’t be too hasty in your judgment. There are plenty of laughs to be had here, but ones that are earned through a surprisingly smart script and sincere performances. There’s no nudge-nudge-wink-wink meta self-aggrandizement, no pretension, no nonsense. It takes its own world and characters seriously but is willing to have a laugh at the expense of both, and it does a fine job of rooting in the drama in the exploits of an unlikely hero who could have quite easily been an irritant.
That hero is the timid Joel (Dylan O’Brien), a self-confessed coward who has, quite by chance, survived a radioactive fallout that has transformed Earth’s creepy-crawlies into towering monstrosities. Shacking up in a bunker with a bunch of alpha end-of-the-world types who have all coupled up and keep him around as little more than a lackey, he’s pining for his lost love, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), who he was parted from during the disaster. As we learn, she’s just one of many losses Joel has had to grapple with, but his only defense mechanism seems to be freezing in place. It’s not exactly the MO of a movie hero.
This, though, is the point. O’Brien is a handsome and already beloved leading man, mostly for his turn in The Maze Runner and its interminable sequels, so the idea of him being desperate and useless is already a funny joke. It isn’t a joke that could be stretched out to feature-length on its own, but as it turns out, O’Brien is also a fine young actor, and the material here – the screenplay is credited to Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson – stretches him in interesting ways. He’s asked to shoulder a fair amount of emotion and run the whole gamut from crippling fear to resolved determination, and he sells it all and then some. He has a fanbase already, but they’ll be delighted by his turn in this, even if they have to settle for watching it on Netflix and not in the theatre after the pandemic scuppered the film’s original release plans.
What sets Joel out on his hero’s journey is the realization that he’s closer to Aimee than he thought, so he leaves the relative safety of his bunker for an 85-mile trip across terrain loaded with giant beasties and colorful eccentrics, including wily survivalist Clyde (Michael Rooker) and his surrogate daughter Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), a robot, and a stray dog who becomes his best friend. Some of that seems like it’s ripe for clumsy predictability, and there is some of that, but Love and Monsters gets by on its pacing, which always walks Joel into a new calamity whenever he thinks he has caught a breather, and the film’s obvious familiarity with and enthusiasm for the post-apocalypse genre.
Obviously, these days post-apocalypse feels more like a lifestyle than a genre, so it’s refreshing to see so many talented people have so much fun with the concept. The science and mythology behind this specific calamity are a bit fuzzy, but the imagination behind its CGI creations is all that matters, and it’s a good time whenever Joel encounters one, which is often. But it all comes back to O’Brien, who keeps us rooted in the adventure with such a likable, relatable turn that it’s impossible not to root for him. A final act full of narrative and emotional surprises only proves that the film has many more ideas besides the ones included here. On the strength of this outing, Love and Monsters deserves the sequel (or prequel!) its imaginative world seems built to accommodate.