“A refreshing and fun buildup gives way to something far more rushed and abrupt in the final stretch.”
by Ken Bakely
There is a careful balance at play during the best moments in Michael Matthews’s Love and Monsters, when the movie is able to meet its acerbic comedy, sci-fi thrills, and underlying messaging to form a pleasantly chaotic blend. The question of whether it does so as consistently or as successfully as it wants to is, unfortunately, not as optimistic. Yet the film is rarely at a loss entirely: for one, it benefits from a winning lead performance from Dylan O’Brien as Joel, a young man who is one of the survivors of what one can only call a complicated apocalypse. Some years before the start of the plot, a giant asteroid was headed for Earth; humanity banded together to blow it out of the sky, but the fallout from the explosions caused the planet’s lizard and insect population to mutate into gigantic, bloodthirsty creatures. Those who didn’t die then live in a myriad of small, underground hubs, hidden away from the outside world. Joel, lacking survival skills, knows that his fellow survivors see little use for his presence aside from when he cooks soup. But he soon sets out on his own, able to use the surviving communications infrastructure to reconnect with Aimee (Jessica Henwick), his girlfriend from before the apocalypse. With his group certain he’s a goner, Joel heads on a treacherous journey into the wastelands, navigating the wild creatures that roam the landscape, and connecting with a number of other reminders of the past – from other humans, to dogs, to AI programs – who will assist him on his quest to reunite.
Love and Monsters’s plot sprawls and stretches out like the open, post-cataclysmic world of its setting. It’s then when Matthews, working from a script by Brian Duffeld and Matthew Robinson, is most able to bring everything together. Supporting turns from Michael Rooker as an isolated survivor and Ariana Greenblatt as his sardonic kid companion enter in and out to add some variety to the proceedings and give O’Brien co-stars to perform against. However, even when he is alone, his confidently underplayed performance as Joel holds firm, even when doing battle against some impressive CGI monsters. It’s a joy to watch the movie unfold when it develops along the lines of this approach, carefully pacing itself while gradually revealing more about the world and its characters as it goes along. But it can’t stay in that headspace forever, and as the movie pushes into its third act, it starts to falter. As it whips up a frenzied and busy finale, Love and Monsters becomes something cluttered and ultimately less engaging, suddenly relying on big setpieces to carry itself through to the finish line.
In other words, a refreshing and fun buildup gives way to something far more rushed and abrupt in the final stretch. The script desperately tries to answer every possible question any viewer could ever ask, but it simply hasn’t given Joel or the other characters enough of a runway to really rise up to the material it gives them, and efforts to shoehorn through its neatly-wrapped final morals seem arbitrary. It’s a sour note to end Love and Monsters on, and it implies its foundation is shakier than it seemed at first glance. The problem is that the movie appears to have suddenly lost its confidence, making everything feel a little more obligatory, a little more untethered, and much less sincerely straightforward. It deeply contrasts with the stretches when it has established a sharp and sturdy rhythm. But still, when the movie works, it’s an admirably clever and entertaining time, easy to watch as it makes good use of its cast, technical achievements, and the finer points of its screenplay. After all, it’s in those moments when the film seems to truly know itself and its capacities, and Matthews and company are able to keep a firm grasp on the material’s potential and its overall outlook.