Love and Monsters, 2020.
Directed by Michael Matthews.
Starring Dylan O’Brien, Jessica Henwick, Dan Ewing, Michael Rooker, and Ariana Greenblatt.
In a monster-infested world, Joel (Dylan O’Brien) learns his girlfriend is just 80 miles away. To make the dangerous journey, Joel discovers his inner hero to be with the girl of his dreams.
Not even 10 minutes into Love and Monsters, it begins to strikingly feel familiar to another recent Paramount PVOD release, Spontaneous. Instead of high school students randomly exploding into giblets, Love and Monsters deal with a different kind of devastating pandemic, one called a Monsterpocalypse that saw a combination of asteroids and man-made scientific weapons pave the way for radioactive chemicals to alter all kinds of bugs and insects, buffing them up into gigantic deadly creatures that within seven years have eliminated 90% of the human population. At the center of this apocalypse is a young once-aspiring artist named Joel Dawson as played by Dylan O’Brien, eventually going on a journey of self-discovery regarding self-worth, identity, and romance. Both movies also have voiceover narration from their protagonists and feel targeted at the same demographic.
If you aren’t keeping up on the similarities and haven’t yet seen Spontaneous, that is something you should rectify before anything. Nevertheless, Love and Monsters was actually conceived by the same writer, Brian Duffield (working alongside co-writer Matthew Robinson). The key difference is that he does not direct this film (Michael Matthews has that job) and it’s not an adaptation of a novel. Considering that Love and Monsters is a significant step down from Spontaneous (also a step below in quality from his other screenwriting credit this year, Underwater), it leads one to believe that Brian Duffield is less talented without working from a novel or that his directorial touch is a key ingredient missing to inject the story with not necessarily the electrifying social commentary of his directorial debut, but liveliness, excitement, and a story that’s not busting out tired clichés with every 10 minutes that pass.
It also doesn’t help that major aspects of the plot are somewhat built on muddled communication between characters, specifically Joel who decides to leave the safe underground colony he is a part of to reunite with his girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) who now lives on a coastal colony. Joel simply feels useless in his current safe haven; everyone else he’s isolated with already has or has found a partner, and is not much of a fighter compared to the rest of them often finding himself doing the cooking and cleaning. It’s understandable why he would want to take on some independence, bear the danger, and take a gamble on making it to a sanctuary where he would also have romance. Take a look at our current global health crisis; online dating is busier than ever. No one wants to be lonely during the apocalypse, especially when they already have someone that they know is alive somewhere.
Joel is capable of communicating with Aimee via radio pretty much whenever he wants. Without thinking about if she is still single, if she still has feelings, or even the faintest idea of how this romantic gesture would make her feel, he decides to leave his colony without letting her know he is coming. Granted, after he is gone his colony does make this a word to her. As an audience, we are left knowing that something about this will not quite work out, especially when halfway into the movie he finds an abandoned radio to talk to her and learns of a yacht captain (Dan Ewing) that has shown up.
There is also the 80-mile trek across admittedly beautiful forests and landscapes taken over by nature. Love and Monsters is aesthetically pleasing when it comes to art design, but not when it comes to CGI for these humongous monsters. Plenty of time, most notably during the daylight, you’ll be looking at the monsters thinking that the filmmakers tried to give them a goofy appearance that matches the humorous tone of the film, but that the special effects team simply didn’t have the budget to make any of truly look appealing. If anything, the monsters look best when Joel is doodling them inside his sketchbook, going as far as jotting down short bios for them including strengths and weaknesses, which is more than enough to make you question if this is based on a video game. It’s not, but it’s actually interesting seeing a character take notes and study these mutated toads and more.
The biggest problem here is that the 7-day journey never really feels too arduous or dangerous. Along the way, Joel meets a pair of survivors (Michael Rooker basically doing a nonracist version of his character on The Walking Dead and looking after a young girl, both of which have some tragic exposition behind coming together to look out for one another), but it doesn’t really amount to much in terms of characterization. They just teach him some rules for surviving, even going as far as numbering them like in Zombieland. Almost as quickly as they join forces, it’s time to split up, where the young girl has an emotional time letting go of Joel and his newfound dog companion; it simply feels awkward considering we barely know any of these characters, don’t yet feel any struggle and don’t yet believe that any of them would actually care about parting ways. There’s also a random interaction with a working robot that feels out of place.
When Joel does arrive at the coastal colony, the predicted friction between him and Aimee becomes the central dynamic, alongside another set of clichés. It really is bizarre who the film makes villains, especially considering Love and Monsters isn’t the kind of movie that feels like it needs last-minute antagonists anyway. The movie is never actively bad or painful to watch (there’s actually one cool part involving a grenade), but the plot does feel awkwardly set into motion and the survival elements are rarely thrilling. The movie follows along an expected path, never outright bad but also never reaching the heights of good.
It’s a bold move introducing a character played by Michael Rooker only to take him away 20 minutes later, leaving Dylan O’Brien to carry the film. He’s not a bad actor, but he’s certainly not bringing anything charismatic to this already generic story. There’s just surely a more entertaining movie in watching Michael Rooker and a foul-mouthed little girl sidekick blow up the insides of overgrown insects
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com