Love and Monsters (2020)
Love and Monsters is a rare kind of beast: an inspired, entertaining, moderately budgeted genre flick with franchise potential. It feels like it’s been adapted from a comic book or graphic novel, but Love and Monsters is an entirely original concept. Created by filmmaker Michael Matthews, Spontaneous (2020), and writer Brian Duffield, Underwater (2020), Love and Monsters isn’t the most innovative film around — it’s a post-apocalyptic adventure in the vein of 2009’s Zombieland with kaiju-esque monsters in place of flesh-eating zombies. The movie still manages to stand out thanks to a charismatic lead performance by The Maze Runner’s Dylan O’Brien, as well as witty writing, genuine heart, and a bunch of grotesquely detailed CGI creatures.
Setting the light-hearted tone from the get-go, the movie opens with a voice-over by O’Brien’s character Joel Dawson, who explains to us how the world ended up being overrun by gigantic modified bugs, reptiles, and amphibians; the over-sized beasties forcing mankind to hide underground while they freely roam the earth. Scientific details of the mutant Armageddon are kind of sketchy, but Joel gets us up to speed, telling us that when disaster struck, he was separated from his girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) and witnessed the death of his parents (Andrew Buchanan and Tandi Wright). Since then, he’s been living in an underground bunker with a stack of young twentysomething survivors who hunt for food and protect their home. The colony, though, is full of horny couples, with O’Brien’s Joel being the only ‘single guy’ in the outpost. While he can’t fight or protect his people from threats (due to freezing up whenever he gets frightened), Joel has made himself an important part of the tribe, taking care of menial tasks such as fixing the radio, milking the cow, and cooking up his famous minestrone.
After seven years of pining for his long-lost love Aimee, Joel stumbles onto her whereabouts via the radio. Sharing stories of their survival, Joel discovers that Aimee has been living in a coastal district only 85 miles away, which he can reach by foot in about seven days. Eager to be reunited with his sweetheart, and against the advice of his settlement pals, Joel decides to leave his colony and embark on a suicide mission across the mutant ridden land, with nothing but a crossbow and a radio in his backpack.
It’s on Joel’s perilous journey that Love and Monsters truly comes to life. Through the trip, our protagonist befriends a loyal stray dog named Boy and meets up with a couple of other survivors — gruff but well-meaning hunter Clyde (Michael Rooker) and his young traveling companion Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt) — who teach the rookie hero how to stay alive in the hostile terrain. The wilderness itself is filled with franchise-starting details such as dangerous flora and fauna, abandoned buildings engulfed by plant life, remnants and debris from past battles, and an array of shadowy nests and critters lurking in the background. The audience is also introduced to a line of ‘aw-shucks’ robotic assistants called Mav1s that were manufactured before the Monsterpocalypse, which O’Brien’s character has never seen in working order, a kind bot offering Joel his last bit of power to contact Aimee.
Then we have the monsters. Oh, yes, the monsters! We come face-to-face with a ghastly giant frog that’s camping in a decrepit swimming pool, a bunch of tentacled underground worms dubbed Sand Gobblers, and an assortment of other enormous nasty creepy crawlies — each encounter extremely exciting and well shot. Throughout his quest, Joel documents and sketches all the fiends he comes across in a scrapbook, making it feel as though the film was adapted from some sort of book series à la J. K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Who knows, studio Paramount might have a future bestseller on their hands.
The whole thing is held together by a charming performance from the young O’Brien, who balances the comedy, drama, and everyman persona of his endearing character — he even makes a joke about being Tom Cruise right after surviving a life-threatening attack. O’Brien also shares great chemistry with his canine companion Boy, which gives the flick an iconic man and his dog sort of feel, similar to that of films like 2007’s I Am Legend or 1975’s A Boy and His Dog. Jessica Henwick from Netflix’s The Defenders (2017), does a decent job as Joel’s love interest Aimee, even though she’s pretty much absent for most of the proceedings. Fortunately, Henwick is given more to do in the third act but delving any deeper would mean we’d be entering spoiler territory, so I’ll leave it there. Then we have Michael Rooker, Slither (2006), who is always good value, although he’s basically playing himself, while Australia’s Dan Ewing, Occupation (2018), pops up as captain of a crew who’ve been living on a yacht.
A rollicking end-of-the-world good time, Love and Monsters is a giant success — it’s clever and thrilling, while its themes of refusing to settle, even during a monster apocalypse, had me feeling warm and fuzzy. I’d love to revisit this wasteland again and these characters. If anything, Love and Monsters proves that it doesn’t take a pre-existing IP to build a new franchise, despite Hollywood clambering to get their hands on whatever they think might sell. All it takes is a good film — a bunch of cool-looking monsters certainly helps, too.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie