There have been many stories put on celluloid about the end of humanity. There’s the nightmarish It Comes At Night (2017), the lonely The Night Eats the World (2018), the frigid Snowpiercer (2013), the violent Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), or the poisoned Earth IO: Last on Earth (2019), and these are just a few of the more modern takes. Taking audiences for a new journey through the existential crisis of absolute eradication is Love and Monsters from director Michael Matthews of the extraordinary Five Fingers of Marseilles (2017). The movie is based on a script by Brian Duffield (Spontaneous) and Matthew Robinson (Monster Trucks) but the approach is less doom-and-gloom and more romance with a shroud of dark comedy. The resulting peculiar apocalypse tale is strangely hopeful and aspirational, leaving audiences in better spirits than when they began the film.
When humanity is faced with the world-ending threat of an asteroid slamming into Earth, the world’s ordinance collectively destroys the space rock, sparing everyone from certain annihilation. The celebration is cut short, however, has the resulting fallout mutates the animals and insects of the world, turning them into grotesque horrors ready to feed on humans. Seven years after the transformation, 95% of humanity is gone and those who remain live in small colonies hidden from the terrors around them, only going out to find food and other supplies. Enter Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien), the only member of his colony without companionship, who discovers his former girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick) is still alive and living in a colony 85 miles away. Determined to see her again, he treks across the surface facing one horrible danger after another. A trained fighter might last three days on his own and Joel freezes with each encounter, so his chances of survival drop with each step.
If one were to draw comparisons between Love and Monsters and other films, it would be easiest to say the film is a mix of the family-friendly How to Train Your Dragon (2010) and science-fiction adventure Monsters (2010) with a dash of Monster Trucks (2016) silliness. If this seems like a strange hybrid concoction, it is, yet it totally works. The threats feel authentic even though it’s obvious from physical staging, narrative beats, direction, and cinematography that Joel is never in any true peril. Dude’s going to make it just fine as it’s not whether he survives that matters, but that he attempts the trip. Where the surprises come are in the fine details of the script and the performances from the cast, especially with O’Brien as the lead. O’Brien makes the boyishness of Joel charming and the character’s need to venture out on his journey one that’s not entirely selfish. Through his performance, the audience can tell that Joel’s real struggle isn’t that Earth is a hellscape of dangerous flora and fauna, it’s that the trauma he endured on the day the monsters attacked remains ever with him to the point that, when faced with life-threatening danger, the fight-or-flight response stalls out leaving Joel frozen and vulnerable. If not for the interference of a plucky dog named Boy, Joel’s journey would’ve ended before it really began as even the desire to see Aimee is not a strong enough motivator to get him to react appropriately. (By the way, minor spoiler: the dog makes it. He is, indeed, a good boy.) As the film and Joel press on, it slowly becomes clear that the script is just as interested in exploring trauma and healing as it is pursuing a love story. This is, in fact, one of the better surprises, as the quest for Aimee is handled maturely in its resolution, offering something far less toxic (Aimee as property/goal trope from romance stories) and far more healthy (Aimee as person; appealing to modern sensibilities). This makes Joel far more sympathetic and his character arc more satisfying in its resolution.
Where the film stumbles a bit is in the depiction of the creatures themselves. All in all, the things are either totally terrifying or hypnotically gorgeous, but there are infinitely more brilliant when they are practical versus CG. In one sequence which is teased in the trailer, Joel is running from a beast of a monster who is burrowing under the ground before breaking through to attack. The sight of a fin peeking through is terribly obvious as CG breaking any kind of tension in the reality of the moment. In that same sequence, though, the monster fully revealed is creatively composed and bound to disquiet younger audiences. In another sequence, Joel finds himself beset by leech-like creatures that he pulls off himself in what has to be an homage to Stand by Me (1986). These slime-covered beasts appear more practical in physical design which elicited more than one shot of discomfort through this reviewer. That said, the CG isn’t all bad as Matthews crafts a moment of peace, beauty, and emotional clarity in a nighttime sequence which combines Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me” with a striking purple glow emanating from jellyfish like creatures floating in the air. Like all things, when the balance is struck in terms of composition, use, and narrative intent, the creature design is a thing of wonder and is properly unsettling. When there’s imbalance, the obvious CG ruins any sense of reality.
Ultimately, Love and Monsters is exactly as advertised. It’s got the world populated by terrifying creatures that want to eat you and its narrative catalyst is one of a love-struck hero out to reunite with his beloved. Heck, it’s even got a curt elder warrior, played with his usual gruffness by Michael Rooker (Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2), who has a kid sidekick (Ariana Greenblatt of The One and Only Ivan) and there’s a bit with a dog. Most importantly, it includes a much-needed optimism in the face of total horror and a message of collectivism as the champion of humanity, not selfish individualism. This is a notion made concrete through the use of King’s “Stand by Me,” a ballad which is just as much a love song denoting familial love, romantic love, and self-love. It’s a song which implores the listener to recognize that any trouble can be overcome as long as we stand together. I don’t know of any better time than now for that message.
In select theaters and on VOD and digital October 16th, 2020.
For more information on the film or which VOD services are offering Love and Monsters, head to the official Paramount website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.