'Love And Monsters' samples the whimsy of 'Fantastic Beasts' and the danger of 'Monster Hunter,' ending up with a romantic Young Adult adventure that's lighter on development but big on atmosphere.
- 💃 Boy the dog is a star.
- 💃 Creature effects.
- 💃 Dylan O'Brien's spunkiness.
- 💃 Stakes are lax.
- 💃 Moves too quick at times.
There’s an often ignored tether between hopeful themes and the horror genre that naysayers downplay. Take Michael Matthews’ Love And Monsters. As purists might decree, it's not a “traditional” horror structure—more horror comedy than anything, or apocalyptic romantic comedy. The titular “monsters” aren’t mercenary mutations who one-by-one eliminate a team of survivors. Instead, a single foolhardy daydreamer finds self-confidence while interacting with his end-of-days ecosystem to prove there’s nothing a little determination and perseverance can’t overcome. That’s always the desire of screenwriters Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson; a humble conquering of fears meets Monster Hunter or, for a proper comparison, Pikmin.
Whether or not you’re into the lovesick exploits of a lone expeditioner who finds more tenderness than tenderized human snacks? Variable per viewer, no doubt. It’s more of a young adult outing than anything, where genre elements tickle rather than torture.
Joel Dawson (Dylan O'Brien), for the last seven years, has thrived underground with his bunker colony 7045. Subterranean living becomes the new normal when global defense orders save Earth by nuking the Agatha 616 asteroid to smithereens, thus raining nuclear particles back downward, altering common vermin and insects' DNA to create mega-sized threats. As Joel’s safehouse finds itself under increasingly aggressive attacks, he realizes that dying underground isn’t a fate he’ll permit. Alternatively, he swears to travel eightyish miles where the once love of his seventeen-year-old life, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), oversees a beachside stronghold. The grandest expressive gesture, if he can survive seven days without being eaten by Sand Gobblers, Limb Crushers, or Chumblers.
As a narrative that’s rooted in the idea of better tomorrows, even in the bleakest of times, Love And Monsters never feels particularly endangered. Joel scurries and bumbles his way through an overgrown America littered with busted military tanks, vine-covered theme park skeletons, and cityscapes now overtaken by the critters once, themselves, the scurriers. As Joel unities with a phenomenally well-acted canine named “Boy,” or learns from wandering mentors Clyde (Michael Rooker) and Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt), we never presume Joel might perish. Maybe that detracts from the overall tension of our noble white knight's doomsday quest, lessening the impact when creatures pounce. Or, perhaps, the focus on Joel’s experiential growth wins out due to Dylan O’Brien’s charismatic and petrified adventurer.
When Joel encounters Boy for the first time, as the pup springs into action when Joel gets tongue-grabbed by a towering toady terror, it’s an immediate payoff. Any sheriff needs a deputy, especially since the chemistry between Joe and Boy outshines The Call Of The Wild with an emphasis put on the “conversational” tone O’Brien upholds with his bark-only companion. It’s the same way O’Brien connects with pipsqueak Minnow, Ariana Greenblatt’s crossbow-proficient daughter by circumstance to Michael Rooker’s grumbly Clyde. The latter latches onto Joel (figuratively and factually) like a little sister during their short overlapping travels. O’Brien exceeds in striking relationships with humans, animals, even a battery-depleted MAV1S automaton (an A.I. home model, like Alexa robotified). As a leading man, O’Brien has the chops. Quivering when confronted by a ginormous “Boulder Snail,” wholesome when chumming around with Boy, and aptly fearful but undeterred once Clyde teaches his Zombieland-like rules to stay alive.
Where the film suffers is in pacing, as Joel continually pushes forward without much counteracting opposition. It feels more like Joel is passing through enemy territories more than trespassing, which plays into a broader idea that not all beastly figures are evil. Interactions and character development progress rapidly, which attribute to the sustainability of blissfulness over suspenseful navigations. Joel has a goal, is driven by an unstoppable human emotion, and vanquishes demons of both the psychological and physical variety. Not to say Love And Monsters is “inconsequential,” but more “inevitable” and “predictably safe” at points that still serve the minor victories in an otherwise major catastrophe. Joel has to reach Aimee; otherwise, we don’t get his redemptive superstar moment in the third-act when a yacht’s crew integrates within Aimee’s community. Still, it’s hard to rattle how breeziness slights an otherwise imposing narrative.
On the “Monster” front of Love And Monsters, everything from gargantuan insects to new-era jellyfish bugs all looks splendidly spectacular. Both on-screen and in Joel's illustrated "guide" that he draws in colored pencils, each page a captured memory. An early run-in with an invading ant soldier brings O’Brien face-to-face with a practical set of mandibles ready to slice through flesh. As O’Brien opens the film’s world, exposing much larger crustacean or shelled adversaries, digital rendering conjures colorful apex predator designs. Some grotesque, others enchanting, as the grossest iterations of earthworms and centipedes seem to be the evilest while luminescent beauty begets empathy in those more gentle giants with telling eyes. Impressive, frankly, in a time where studios often fail their animated characters despite blockbuster budgets.
Love And Monsters is a Horror Lite almost-eradication of humankind that would rather act as a beacon of positivity then descender deeper into the darkness. It’s apparent in character totems (Boy's prized dress, Aimee's lucky dinosaur, etc.) and made more evident as each scene forges onward. Mind you, this isn’t a negative result. Just a description to properly ward away those hopefully clutching onto the “Monsters” aspect of Michael Matthew’s title. While I do agree there’s not always more than a basic sci-fi retrofitting of simplistic romantic cues, downplaying stakes through another in-luck rescue, it’s a choice that still benefits humble intentions stemming from innate hopelessness that we can’t help but choke-down in today’s world. As Joel keeps reminding his fellow cohorts, “If I can do it, so can you.” Repeat after Joel, and the film’s core messaging can pull you through.
Love and Monsters will be available to stream October 16th.
Matt Donato is a Rotten Tomatoes approved film critic who stays up too late typing words for What To Watch, IGN, Paste, Bloody Disgusting, Fangoria and countless other publications. He is a member of Critics Choice and co-hosts a weekly livestream with Perri Nemiroff called the Merri Hour. You probably shouldn't feed him after midnight, just to be safe.
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