Dylan O’Brien turns the end of the world into a call for empathy in this sweet take on the genre.
As Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien) tells us in the most casual way possible, the world has ended. Via a montage of Dawson’s drawings, we learn of an asteroid Agatha-616 (a sly reference for longtime comic fans?) that seemed set to send the human race in the same historical dustbin as the dinosaur. The nations of the world, however, came together and blow the damn thing up. Crisis averted. The resulting debris and fallout, though, mutated the cold-blooded creatures on Earth into oversized bloodthirsty versions of themselves. Humankind fights, humankind ends up dying to the tune of 90% population reduction. What’s left of our ranks now live in small communities underground, huddling, hoarding, and hoping for some kind of change while running out the clock.
From the opening narration, the film immediately marks itself as a sort of sweeter, more optimistic cousin to Zombieland. O’Brien relates the ridiculous heightening of our personal apocalypse—the threat of a planet-killing asteroid giving way to literal monsters—with delightful charm. It serves to both establish Dawson’s personality but also to establish the state of things. In the seven years since the end, people have rediscovered the art of humorous detachment.
Overall, O’Brien establishes himself as a likable lead and guide to the world. His lack of hardening allows him to start as a comedic figure. However, both O’Brien and the script by Brian Duffield and Matthew Robinson keeps things flexible enough that when Dawson’s tragic backstory unfurls it adds depth rather than breaking the character.
When Dawson takes on traveling companions, be it a dog named Boy or the mismatched duo of Clyde Dutton (Michael Rooker, lowkey gruff and charming) and Minnow (a just precocious enough Ariana Greenblatt), O’Brien makes him so fundamentally decent, you understand how he seems to bring out empathy in everyone he meets.
The real draw here though is the creature designs. Recognizable as the amphibians, reptiles, fish, and bugs outside your door right now but more than just bigger, they manage to play both funny to the viewer and entirely “legible” as frightening to the protagonists. Additionally, save for a beach scene, they nicely integrate into the physical space with a sense of presence and weight. Even when things do feel false, there is a kind of higher-tech Harryhausen charm to the beasties.
Structurally, the movie falters a bit the closer Dawson gets to his former girlfriend Aimee’s (Jessica Henwick) camp. The monster encounters begin to feel less like discovery and more like checking things off a list. Here is the one where he proves to himself he can do it, here’s the one with the scariest monster, here’s the one where he learns a bigger lesson, and so on. The individual scenes work fine on their own, but, as an integrated whole, it loses some charm as the seams become all too obvious.
Accidentally or not, the film’s appreciation of living after circumstances have overthrown the life you took for granted meets the moment.
Still, director Michael Matthews does find time to inject moments of beauty and humanity even as the movie starts to feel like it’s on rails. A light show provided by a school of formerly aquatic creatures and a bittersweet reunion of sorts come quickly to mind. Again, the film’s willingness to find heart in the wasteland asserts itself as its more endearing and enduring quality.
At the end of the day, Love and Monsters is not an especially new take on its themes. However, I expect I will be coming back to Dawson’s thoughts of how it feels to taste freedom after so long underground more than once in the months to come. Accidentally or not, the film’s appreciation of living after circumstances have overthrown the life you took for granted meets the moment. As we all stand on the precipice of what could very well turn into a second pandemic lockdown, its bittersweet hug of a story settles in nicely around the viewer.
Love and Monsters is currently available on demand.