Leave it to a film about the world being overtaken by massive bugs after nuclear weapons poison the planet to provide us with the hope and optimism we need to make it through our current tough times. As odd as that may seem, that’s exactly what director Michael Matthews is able to do with his romance-meets-‘Mad Max’-meets-‘Godzilla’ film, “Love & Monsters.”
Joel (Dylan O’Brien) has been through some shit. Seven years ago, he was living a typical teenager’s life. He was madly in love with his girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick), making out in her Jeep as the sun goes down. But then the world decided to send nuclear weapons up into space to destroy meteors that seemed destined to make an impact, raining radiation down on the planet and mutating every cold-blooded organism. Now, seven years later, Joel’s parents are dead, the world is overrun by massive monsters, and he’s living in an underground shelter with people that don’t respect him and treat him as little more than a “little, pathetic, adorable hedgehog.” Worst of all, his girlfriend is missing and he doesn’t know if she survived the apocalypse.
His luck changes when Joel is able to reach her on the radio and discovers that Aimee is alive and well and only 85 miles away. What’s a lovelorn boy to do? Joel grabs his crossbow, some rations, and his lackluster survival skills and heads out on a seven-day trek to find Aimee and live happily ever after. However, those 85 miles will surely require him to surely face off with some big, disgusting, killer beasts along the way. Don’t worry, folks, because Joel has hope!
That’s the beginning of “Love & Monsters,” and though Joel definitely comes across a variety of deadly bugs and treacherous circumstances, he also discovers newfound confidence and friendship along the way, proving that sometimes you just need hope and optimism to remind you that life might not be nearly as terrible as you think it is. And Matthews, along with writers Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson, is able to craft a film that will not only thrill you with unexpected battles between humans and overgrown frogs, ants, and crabs (amongst other creepy crawlies) but will also touch you on an emotional level, thanks to a really solid lead performance by O’Brien, who provides the heart and soul of a film that very easily could have landed in campy, B-movie territory.
Right off the bat, when you meet Joel, as played by O’Brien, you will be reminded of Jesse Eisenberg’s bumbling hero in “Zombieland.” Both men are definitely not equipped to handle the post-apocalypse and will require the help of some real survivors and makeshift rules along the way. However, the difference between O’Brien and Eisenberg’s characters is the empathy and heart brought to Joel in “Love & Monsters.” Sure, his lack of machismo and hunting ability is mocked early on, but there’s real growth to the character over the course of “Love & Monsters” that makes Joel feel like a full, well-rounded person and not just a punchline. And though O’Brien isn’t typically the guy you find playing the hapless dork (he’s typically more of the heartthrob, leading man type), he is able to pull it off without falling into caricature, as could have easily happened given the tone of the rest of the film.
Make no mistake, “Love & Monsters” is about hope and optimism in the face of insurmountable odds, but it’s also a film about destroying overgrown, mutated insects in the most ridiculous ways possible. And in as a monster film, it mostly succeeds. Sure, there are the occasional scenes where the lower budget leads to questionable CGI, but more times than not, the effects (including some welcomed practical monster prosthetics) work surprisingly well. The danger is real and the tension is palpable just when you need it the most.
But don’t go into “Love & Monsters” expecting a hard-hitting gorefest. For every scene that involves shooting a bug in the face or lobbing grenades at a centipede, there are multiple scenes that will make you chuckle and sometimes even elicit some awwwww’s. (There’s a dog that enters the film early on that almost completely steals the show.) Matthews smartly recalibrates the film after an action scene to make sure you never forget the true intentions of the story.
That said, the film does take a sharp left and veer off into wannabe-blockbuster territory in the third act, when the stakes are quickly raised and the action goes from personal and intimate (as much as a monster film can be) to something rivaling a modern superhero film. Though the film eventually regains its footing before the very end, the detour into good guy versus comically evil bad guy does lead to a lackluster climax that reeks of studio notes requiring a big battle at the end.
As the story of “Love & Monsters” comes to an end, we’re once again reminded that this isn’t a film about love or monsters. This is a movie about not giving up when the world seems stacked against you. It’s about not letting past traumas and heartbreak lead you down a (sometimes literal) hole that you refuse to rise out of. Ultimately, “Love & Monsters” is a film about picking yourself up, taking your destiny into your own hands, and not being afraid of living, even though you’re likely to make some mistakes along the way. And it’s a damn fun adventure to boot. [B]
“Love & Monsters” is on Premium VOD now.