Story: Years after radiation turns insects and animals around the world into man-eating monsters that have devoured most of mankind, one survivor ventures out into the dangerous new world in hopes of reconnecting his long-lost love.
Review: For a movie with the title LOVE AND MONSTERS there really can’t be much to expect beyond what that title promises: some sweeping romance and a bounty of vicious creatures that maim and devour, only to meet their own gnarly demise—hopefully via some sort of explosion. But just because there aren’t very high expectations doesn’t mean this teen/early-20s-geared-romance-creature-feature doesn’t find ways to fall short of them, namely with a romance that doesn’t go beyond some starry-eyed wistfulness, thinly written characters, and only a handful of mutated creatures that, more often than not, are trapped within frustratingly dull carnage.
What makes the results worse is that at the outset there’s a glimmer of hope that viewers are in for something wild, or at the very least quirky fun from director Michael Matthew’s first big-budget feature. Recounted over narration and illustrated with own drawings of various creatures and calamities by leading hero Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien) (heavily alluding to the influence of another post-apocalyptic comedy, ZOMBIELAND) L&M takes places seven years after all the countries of the world banded together to launch their nukes at an incoming meteor, only for the radiation and chemicals to rain down as a result and turn various insects and animals into monstrous, man-eating beasties. Why humans and certain other animals remain unchanged and the general environment remained intact I don’t know, but the massive creatures killed off 95 percent of all human life, leaving the rest to hunker down underground to live out their days in uncertainty.
Dawson has been living with the same “colony” these last seven years, and as the awkward, designated runt of the group given his immense fear/freezing problem when it comes to killing monsters, he spends his days tasked with doing the cooking and cleaning while everyone else gets to go out and hunt monsters and/or hook-up with each other. That doesn’t sound like the formula for much romance on his part, but after somehow finding his former love’s, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), radio signal they begin to reconnect, and soon he realizes braving a world overrun with mutated spiders is better than living life of little respect and less sex. Taking on a simple road-movie format, he’s armed himself with nothing but a flimsy crossbow and love in his heart and sets out to find his soulmate despite being told he will most certainly die.
While the road for both him and the movie itself seems destined to be a crazy one filled with all sorts of menacing creatures and endless possibilities, there’s a disappointing lack of any real excitement. The first creature we see after it breaks into Dawson and Co.’s bunker is brought to life with a mixture of CGI and excellent animatronic work, but from there on out its strictly CGI work. Dawson comes into contact with well designed and especially gross-looking monsters, like giant frogs, centipedes and other creatures capable of digging underground and barreling at him (meaning the plan for humans to live underground seems…ill-advised). However early on he has no choice but to run from them and eventually be helped out of the jams by a very, very good, scene-stealing dog named Boy, and then by a grisled monster hunter named Clyde (Michael Rooker), and his badass 8-year-old companion, Minnow (Ariana Greenblatt). The prevailing problem with everything here that should be insanely fun to watch that gets thrown on screen is that it’s all painfully underwritten, whether it’s for budgetary constraints or simply the poor script from Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson. The world is supposedly overrun with monsters, but they’re very few and far between, many lingering obscured off-screen as Dawson and Boy casually make their way across the terrain.
Characters like Clyde and Minnow are tasked with teaching Joel the ropes so he’s not swallowed alive, but their rushed screen time means all they end up teaching him is how to shoot his dingy crossbow slightly better than before, and maybe a few things about the environment. Nothing they pass on feels of consequence for Joel and lessons are recalled in one-off moments when he’s in a jam. That’s because even though there is an adopted-family theme laced throughout, the inexplicable decision is made to remove Clyde and Minnow from the equation after 15-20 minutes. Their charm and room to grow as characters are squandered on thin, one-dimensional plot device characterization, even though it’s clear a movie centered on them – along with MVP Boy – would be far and beyond more interesting than what’s here. Think a twist on the video game THE LAST OF US, as the two journey across the country, but replace infected zombie types with massive monsters. Why we will never get that movie, considering Rooker and Greenblatt’s great chemistry, is a cinematic travesty.
So much time is, for some reason, focused on Joel with nothing but Boy to keep him company, as he pines over the day he can finally get back to Aimee. O’Brien is a charming enough leading man with solid comedic timing to make his character likable enough to stay on this journey with, and he considering he’s never not on the screen, it speaks to his talent that I never got tired of his character. But that doesn’t mean his journey is any less threadbare, with the monsters he does take down proving to not be all that challenging of foes, all things considered. At the start, it’s told the monsters were so big and nasty some required tanks to take down, but now, humanity has run out of guns, meaning they’re left with whatever they can cobble together. Given the movie takes place in America it’s hard to believe they ran out of guns before canned food, and what that means is action scenes are resolved with a grim lack of excitement or intensity. Joel, finding his courage out of the blue when Boy is about to be eaten by a giant creature, Joel takes it down with little more than an arrow shot to the head. This ability to take down creatures does make the movie’s point that maybe humans shouldn’t remain so scared that they’re forced to live in bunkers, but it also means watching any of the action feels uninspired and too hastily resolved, despite some cool monster effects.
There is room for sweetness amidst the basic road-movie angle, though. A moment where Joel and an impressively designed animatronic AI bot named MAV1S watch “Sky Jellies” litter the night sky, and his bond with his dog companion make for moments where some real lightness gets to shine through. The same goes for what warmth Henwick brings to her role, who’s also a large enough talent to make use of her limited screentime with some legit ass-kickery, But, ultimately, whatever messages about love and family there are feel rushed to their conclusion rather than naturally built to. Take when it turns out Joel perhaps over-thought what love connection was still there between him and Aimee, and he learns that maybe his “colony” was where he, in fact, truly belonged. In figuring this out he too discovers his true strength within, but his dynamic with his colony never goes beyond what little time was spent with them in the opening moments, so whatever bond is there is of little emotional impact, and given his journey was so rudimentary in terms of both thrills and lessons learned, nothing feels genuinely earned.
Perhaps I expected too much from LOVE AND MONSTERS. While it certainly has its moments that I enjoyed, clearly the target audience is anyone who enjoys and simple YA-centric adventure story, with some good performances, a light sense of humor, and undeniably cool creature effects perhaps enough for others to have a good time with. But even still, fans of the YA genre will find a lot that’s maybe too familiar here, and like a lot of big-budget movies that are just okay, I kept seeing room for that familiarity to blossom out into something truly unique, only for it almost never to. Along the journey against a somewhat dangerous road, everything special about LOVE AND MONSTERS is watered down into something mostly ordinary, especially the love and what monster excitement we get. Maybe things would’ve been a bit better had more giant bullfrogs eaten more helpless Floridians.