Love and Monsters (2020)
★★★ / ★★★★
Michael Matthews’ “Love and Monsters” could have relied solely on its quirky premise of a young man who decides to trek eighty-five miles, despite animals that have mutated to gargantuan proportions roaming the planet, to be reunited with the girl he loves. Instead, the material is injected with terrific imagination; when it is not busy making jokes left and right—whether it be through propulsive action, idiosyncratic narration, or low-key visuals—it entertains by providing genuine moments of peril. This is no lazy cash grab. By the end of it, I was salivating for a sequel.
Dylan O’Brien plays Joel, the main cook and radio communicator in his underground colony. It has been seven years since he’d been to the surface, seven years since humanity sent missiles to destroy an incoming asteroid that housed mutagens which led to the end of the world, seven years since he’d been with his girlfriend Aimee (Jessica Henwick). Joel is tired of being the only unpaired person in his colony, knowing that his soulmate is not even a hundred miles away. Despite his tendency to freeze in utter terror when faced with a life or death situation, Joel decides to head to the surface anyway. This is a story of a person so lonely, the possibility of death is a warm alternative.
Partly because of his physicality (a bit scraggly, boyish, bright-eyed), it is always a nice surprise when O’Brien finds a way to convince us that his character is an unlikely hero. This role is no exception. He proves to have a knack for embodying the vibe of the screenplay—especially important here because the picture is a mashup of comedy, monster movie, road adventure, and a whiff of romance. This is no role for a wooden plank. At the same time, O’Brien evokes a cool self-awareness without turning his character into a caricature.
I felt the filmmakers’ love for the creatures on screen even though it is CGI-heavy. It is not enough that they look expensive or that we feel shocked or horrified whenever one makes a surprise appearance. Notice how the camera takes just enough time for viewers to appreciate the more minute details, like boils on a frog’s skin, texture of a snail’s head, slime dripping out of a worm’s mouth. More impressive is that these characteristics can be observed in the middle of tense action sequences. Like Joel, we are learning in every beat and after close calls. His experience becomes our own.
Further, it is paramount that these creatures blend into the environment. They must move a certain way when relaxed and another when the hunt is on. After all, it is survival of the fittest out there. These nuanced choices go along way. And so when a character, for instance, claims that it is dangerous out on the surface, there is no doubt in our minds as to why. Better yet—we are able to provide specific, vivid examples. In other words, the filmmakers are interested in providing an enveloping experience rather than just junk entertainment in which interest wanes the moment an action sequence ends.
But what I loved most about Joel’s journey are the personalities he encounters. It doesn’t matter whether it is an animal, fellow humans, or a machine. Each one offers a distinct perspective and provides insight, knowledge, or understanding that the others cannot. As a result, these personalities do not simply function as decorations for a cheap chuckle or two. They elevate our protagonist’s journey in some way, reminding him one way or another that he is stronger than he thinks he is.